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There and Back Again

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Chapter One: Dreams

 

I walked, hobbled really, trying to hurry.  Back to my house.  Back to the safety of my four walls.  Back to the room I wished I could stay in forever.  The bags in my hands seemed to grow heavier with each step, and I was out of breath from hurrying.  Cursing, I shifted my grip on the damned groceries again.  As happened more and more frequently lately, a wave of dizziness washed over me, and I abruptly lurched to the side, plowing into another unfortunate pedestrian.  The man swore, barely keeping his feet, and I shuffled away as fast as I could with blurry vision and ringing in my ears.  For once, I didn't even hear the insults hurled at me, that three-letter word that had been used to humiliate me since my earliest childhood memories - fat.  Not that it was untrue, I normally thought to myself whenever someone muttered that epithet in my direction, but why was it any business of theirs?  This time, the pounding in my head completely blocked it out, and I passed around a corner out of sight without even realising I'd been insulted.

 Initially, my dizzy spells had only lasted moments, but they had been getting worse; I had fainted, a few times, and woken in an ambulance or hospital, but at first if I could stay on my feet they would just pass.  A million tests, a dozen doctors, and no one had any answers.  The fainting spells were becoming more frequent, lasting longer, and the last time I'd been unconscious for an entire day.  My therapist, the one I'd reluctantly agreed to visit after the third hospital trip, had decided they were panic attacks.  I hadn't thought of myself as someone prone to panic before they started.  I certainly was, by now.  When the dizziness hit, I would try anything - breathing into a paper bag, sitting with my head between my knees, I had even tried alcohol.  Once, mortified at myself, I even tried a joint, all with no effect.  I took the medication the therapist recommended, which only made me nauseous. 

 It became a nightmare for me to leave the house.  The embarrassment of waking in hospital was too much, so I stayed behind closed doors.  Once I had even been robbed, waking on a street corner with no purse, no wallet; that was the proverbial last straw.  With no family, and a recent layoff with a severance package that would keep my rent paid for a while yet, no one noticed when I blacked out if I never left home, and eventually I would wake, stiff, with a full bladder and an empty stomach, and things would be normal again.  Until the next time. 

 But I still needed groceries.  I no longer drove, not trusting myself not to black out behind the wheel, and that left me with walking to the nearest store.  It wasn't all that far, but I hadn't been one for exercise since childhood, and I found even the few blocks left me panting.  And that was assuming I made it there and back without passing out.  Which it seemed I wasn't going to be able to do, this time.  Careening around the corner, I found a bench up against the side of the building I was passing, and sank onto it, groceries still in hand.  I fought the feeling, struggled to stay awake, but felt the blackness take me anyway.  My body slumped to the side, as I dropped the grocery bags, and remembered nothing else.

 ********

 The things I hadn't told anyone about the blackouts were the dreams.  My therapist and a variety of frustrated emergency room doctors already thought I was crazy; I certainly wasn't going to make that worse by explaining the dreams that haunted me while I was unconscious.  I justified that by assuring myself they were nothing other than the random firings of nerve cells in my too-imaginative brain, and trying to ignore them.  After all, even coma patients who woke after years of unconsciousness reported dreaming, right?  But the dreams were too real.  I had started needing more and more time to recover from them; when I woke I was unsure who I was, where I was.  The dreams felt more real to me than being awake.

 The first dream I could remember, the first blackout, I saw the dragon.  Massive, evil, such a dark red it almost appeared purple, the beast flew over me.  The wind from its wings battered against me, knocking me over, its roar deafening me.  I had scrambled to get away, scraping my hands on the rocks beneath me, feet scrabbling for purchase, until I made the mistake of looking down and realising that it was not rock shards I was sliding over, but jagged pieces of bone... I woke in the back of an ambulance, my blood curdling scream almost causing the paramedic who was driving to careen off the road.  It had only taken a few seconds to figure out where that dream had come from - with the layoff, and nothing left to do after sending out resumes, I'd been playing computer games to kill time.  One game in particular, really - Dragon Age: Origins.  Convinced I'd just overdone it on the fantasy, I tried to put the dream out of my mind as much as possible.

 The next dream was about darkspawn.  I was in the deep roads, from the same damned game, watching from above as the horde marched.  The sheer number of disgusting creatures was overwhelming, the smell of rot and decay rising to assail my nostrils, the sound of thousands of feet roaring, the high-pitched calls of the shrieks barely discernible above the rest of the din.  I watched for what felt like hours, waking finally in the emergency room, apparently only unconscious for about an hour.  I shuddered, remembering the oppressive aura of true evil that rose from the horde, but again, I put it down to too much time in front of the computer, too late at night.  I put aside the game for a while, thinking perhaps I just needed a break from that sort of dark fantasy.  I watched romantic comedies and re-read favourite books, but it made no difference.  The dreams kept coming with each blackout, and eventually I returned to the game.

 As I isolated myself further, avoiding leaving the house for fear of public blackouts, I played more and more.  Having nothing else more compelling to do, when I finished the game, I started again.  I played first as a human, then as an elf, a dwarf.  I played the mage origin twice, trying different tactics each time.  I resolved not to look up the outcomes of any of the decisions, and tried all the different ones.  Support Harrowmont once, Bhelen the next time.  Kill the elves, kill the werewolves, try to find a compromise.  Kill Loghain, or recruit him.  Take Morrigan's deal or don't.  Romance Alistair, or Zevran, or giggle as I tried to manage a lesbian relationship with Leliana.  Deal with the devastation of Alistair sacrificing himself to save me, or watch him cry over me at my funeral if I saved him.  I tried them all.  My favourite was playing a human noble, a rogue, and ending up as the Queen of Ferelden, even though poor Alistair hated it.  But he was so sweet, so kind, so noble...I played the romance scenes with him over and over, falling head over heels with the handsome templar.  It was a good thing, I decided, that I don't have any close friends to see me pining away over a fictional character in a computer game.  I'd never live it down. 

 I read the books by David Gaider, and while they were interesting in their own way, they weren't as compelling as playing the game.  Though knowing who Alistair's mother was threw me, for a bit.  I pictured him as being huge...how could he be half elven?  Elves were supposed to be tiny.  I knew the children of elves and humans looked human, but I figured the height might at least be affected.  I didn't dwell on it.

 And in between, the blackouts.  The dreams.  Sometimes I would have more-or-less pleasant ones; images of Alistair's childhood in Redcliffe Castle, or Leliana as a youngster singing for an older woman I assumed to be Lady Cecilie, the Orlesian noblewoman who raised her, or Morrigan's fumbling first attempts at shapechanging.  Sometimes they would be full of demons and abominations, darkspawn and undead.  However, I couldn't help but notice that with each blackout, the dreams were becoming longer, more detailed, more real, and the actual world felt more and more like a dream.  I knew I should have been terrified, but somehow, I couldn't bring myself to care that much.  It wasn't like I was leaving anything of importance behind, like anyone would truly care if I didn't wake up.  It was only the inconvenience, the embarrassment of the blackouts that caused me any real grief.

 ********

 This dream was the most immersive of all, I thought to myself as I looked around.  I was standing in the middle of a field, wearing my jeans, jacket, and t-shirt, dark hair flowing down my back, with my feet crammed into my ill-fitting cheap shoes.  The scent of wild flowers tickled my nose, as well as a whiff of manure.  I looked around to see a busy farm-hold in the distance, and without any other ideas, I walked in that direction.  The act of walking brought me up short; I hadn't realised, but this body I was inhabiting was definitely not my own.  I stopped and looked down, realising that instead of the roundness of my stomach, the flare of my hips that I was used to, I found a long, lean body, with small breasts high on my chest, slim hips, and thighs which didn't touch when I stood.  Despite my changed body, my clothes fit fine, which seemed strange.  For the first time in a long time, as I walked, I did not feel out of breath, my legs didn't burn with effort.  As I returned to crossing the field, I felt slightly giddy, even skipping a few steps, until my feet started to protest.  I ended up having to sit down and take off my shoes, walking the rest of the way barefoot.  Smiling, I stepped onto the well-packed dirt in front of the small farmhouse.

 I could hear children, somewhere in the distance, giggling and laughing as they chased each other and played juvenile games.  There were dogs barking, and the sound of chickens and pigs, and I wandered around, wide-eyed.  Being born and raised in the city, I had never been to a farm before, but this looked...rustic, even to me.  There was no paved road, just a dirt trail leading to the farmhouse.  I saw no cars, no trucks, but there was a large cart that I assumed could be hitched to a horse.  I could hear no tractors, and could just distinguish men, in the fields, harvesting some sort of plant by hand.  I wondered if they could be Amish.  I had never seen anyone Amish, but knew that they did not accept modern technology at all. 

 I wandered further, coming up on the small farmhouse.  It too was primitive, made out of stone and wood.  There was only one small window, and the glass was warped, yellowing and thick, like pictures I had seen of ancient cathedrals.  The roof was thatched - I did a double take at that - and thin smoke was curling up out of a chimney.  I didn't go up to the door, deciding to look around more first.  Passing around the side of the small building, I came upon two women hanging damp laundry onto a line.  They didn't see me approach, and I paused, examining the women in surprise.  One of the women was young, perhaps barely eighteen, while the other was older.  The older one had a young baby strapped to her hip with a blanket.  They were chatting away as they hung laundry, and the unusual, obviously hand-sewn clothes drew my attention. 

 I was distracted from examining their clothes when I realised I could overhear what they were saying.

 "Isn't it exciting, mother?" asked the younger woman.  The enthusiasm in her voice made me adjust her age estimate down by a couple of years.  "The King will be marching past in the next couple of days.  And Loghain, the Hero of River Dane.  And an army of Grey Wardens!"

 "Don't let your father hear that tone when you talk about men," admonished the older woman.  "Maker knows he'd tie you up in the barn and never let you out again."  She smiled, taking the sting from her words.

 "Oh, mother, the stories all mention how handsome King Cailan is.  I just want to see him.  See if it's true."

 "And try to catch his eye, no doubt.  Don't give me that look, girl, you can't fool me.  I'd recommend you set your sights a bit lower.  I suspect Queen Anora would have a swift and probably unpleasant response to anyone getting attention from the King.  Don't underestimate that woman; she's ruthless."  Both women giggled, but the younger one paused, suddenly looking nervous.

 "Mother?"

 "Yes, dear?"

 "I was thinking about...going to Ostagar.  Trying to get a job as a servant or cook or some such."  Her mother dropped the trousers she was trying to hang, staring at the young woman in shock.  "Wait, hear me out.  Look, Maker knows we could use the silver.  I am certain they could use extra hands, helping to prepare, and...isn't it our duty?  To help the King, in any way we can, in a time of Blight?  Da's letting Dylan go, to join the army as a recruit, he could accompany me there and make sure I'm safe, and..."

 She trailed off under her mother's gaze.  The brief silence left me time to think, to try to process the information I'd just heard.  A King?  A battle at...Ostagar?  I knew I'd been dreaming about Dragon Age, but hadn't expected this level of detail, from a dream.  These pieces weren't a part of the game!  There had been no mention of this young woman, or this Dylan.  Somehow my sleeping brain was providing details, and...back story?  In a setting created by a game designer.  Weird.

 A sudden scream of terror brought me back to what was happening.  Glancing around, I noticed the young woman staring out into the fields, hands pressed over her mouth, as she took a deep breath to scream again.  I followed her gaze, and gasped.  Rising up, out of the ground, were darkspawn.  One of them had already attacked, its wicked sword being pulled out of the body of one of the men I had seen harvesting grain.  Another was fighting a second man, who was using one of his farming tools - a scythe, I realised - as a weapon, parrying desperately.  More creatures surged to the surface, spreading out and engaging the other men in the field.  Seeing that they had the men outnumbered, several of the creatures turned towards the young woman's scream and headed toward the farmhouse.

 Reality setting in, the mother grabbed her daughter, shaking her until she caught her eye, and then screamed at her.  "Run!  Keep running and don't look back.  Go find the King.  Tell him what happened.  Go!  Run, girl!" 

 With a shove from her mother, the girl finally turned, and started to run away.  She stumbled as she ran, not even noticing me as she sprinted past, around the house and out of sight.  I was still frozen in place, staring at the horror of - oh God - Genlocks and Hurlocks up close, as the mother unhooked the baby from her waist, settling it in the laundry basket, and running over to tuck the basket into the shelter of the wall of the house where it would not easily be seen.  Grabbing a large stick, she stepped out onto the path her daughter had run down, and I finally realised she was preparing to fight.  Darkspawn.  Alone.  With a stick.

 Looking around desperately, I noticed a pitchfork leaning against the wall, and ran over to grab it.  I realised I did not have enough time to run away - my hesitation had cost me that - and now had no choice but to fight.  I grabbed the implement and ran up to the woman's side, heart pounding, feeling like I was going to vomit.  Keep it together, Sierra.  The woman didn't even acknowledge me, she was so focused on the approaching darkspawn.  I frantically searched my mind for anything I knew about fighting, coming up with very little.  I was briefly disgusted with myself for never watching martial arts movies, when the darkspawn arrived.  No time left to think, I struck out at one with the pitchfork, scoring a hit on his face from my superior reach, and the creature bellowed in pain.

 The darkspawn seemed to give me a wide berth after that, instead attempting to surround the unfortunate woman beside me trying to defend the road long enough for her daughter to run.  She swung her stick with determination, obviously much better trained with a weapon than I, but with all the crowding around her, there was only so much she could do.  I tried to help any way I could, hacking as a hurlock lifted his axe to cut her down, black blood squirting out through the openings my pitchfork made in his back, slashing the sword arm of another, just trying to keep her whole.  She had blood running down her face, and some sort of wound in her side - not all of the blood on her homemade linen dress was hers, but enough of it was.  More and more of the darkspawn were coming, and I realised they had finished off the men in the fields.  We are losing.

 I heard an odd noise behind me, and turned my head for one moment.  The whole scene seemed to pause as a tall, gaunt, twisted figure, a parody of the hurlocks in front of me, unfolded from the ground.  He wore strange, blood red, piecemeal armour, and an elaborate though shabby headdress.  An Emissary, I realised, and my heart sank.  It had been hopeless before, though I had refused to acknowledge it, but now I was forced to.  We were through.  The Emissary was chanting, and the hair on my arms stood on end, goosebumps rippling my flesh, as I felt the magic building.  I turned back to yell at the woman to run, just in time to see her cut down by a darkspawn sword.

 I screamed, a howl of rage and fear and anguish, and felt something change in the magic aura behind me.  As tears flowed down my cheeks, a flash of white light expanded in a circle around me.  The hurlocks and genlocks around me howled, then flew back from me, some of them landing on the ground, some slamming up against another surface, like the wall of the house, before sliding down to join their brethren in the dirt.  None of them rose again.  I turned to see the Emissary still alive, though down on the ground behind me.  He looked...confused, would be the closest I could come to the emotion expressed on his corrupted face.  Blood trickled out of one ear, though he didn't seem to notice it.

 "What did you do?"  It asked.  I had forgotten that Emissaries can speak, and the gravelly voice was like nails on a chalkboard.  It raised its arms, chanting, then gasping as nothing happened.  "What are you?" It screamed now, raising its arms again, and finally released from my stunned paralysis, I stomped over to it and drove the pitchfork into its chest with all of my strength.  Black ichor squirted out, again, and I realised my jeans were entirely ruined.  Black blood dripped off the hem and was smeared across my chest, but nowhere did I see any of my own, red blood.  I was, amazingly, unharmed.

 The Emissary fell back, and I stood over it, panting, tears still streaming.  Convinced it was dead, I finally straightened and surveyed the farm-hold.  Nothing moved.  The darkspawn were dead, the grass turning brown around them where they lay.  There was no sound - no more children playing, no more talking, no more screaming.  Everything was desolate silence.  I screamed once, sinking down beside the body of the woman I'd fought to save.  Too late.  Why did it have to be too late?  I held her hand and sobbed, guilt washing over me.  Why hadn't I done something?  What had even happened?  It was clear the Emissary hadn't seen anything like it before, and obviously, neither had I.

 A soft-pitched cry disturbed me from my mourning.  The baby!  Another thing I'd forgotten.  I hustled over to the spot where his mother had hidden the basket, and there, amidst the still damp laundry, I found a tiny, sweet, smiling face.  I picked him up, gently - I had never held an infant before, had no idea whatsoever what to do with him.  In foster care I'd had numerous younger foster-siblings, but the youngest had been toddlers.  He smiled at me, reaching out and grabbing a handful of hair.  I smiled back.  I sat him back in the basket, feeling somewhat less desolate.  It had been too late to save his mother, the rest of his family - but he, and perhaps his sister, would live.

 The stink of blood was in my nose, the metallic taste in my mouth; I decided that the least these people deserved was to be buried with some respect.  And perhaps I would burn the darkspawn corpses as well, before they tainted anything else.  I went into the house, searching until I found some blankets, some water, and something I assumed was kerosene, and dragged my finds outside.  Back inside for a moment, I found a chamber pot and did my business.  Outside, I drank some water, and carefully dripped some into the baby's mouth as well; he giggled as it ran down his chin.  I pulled his mother's body out from amidst the darkspawn, crossing her arms on her chest and closing her eyes before I covered her with a blanket. 

 Setting off into the field, I found the rest of the bodies, and slowly, laboriously, pulled them all to lie beside her, before covering them as well.  The bodies of the children left me sobbing, again, tiny bodies laid between the larger ones of their family.  The task was gruesome.  Finally, surrounded by four children and five adults, I found a shovel and began to dig.  I knew I wouldn't manage to make graves as deep as I wished, but something was better than nothing.  I dug, and dug, eventually realising that I would be exhausted long before I had enough individual resting places.  I decided that the family would probably forgive me for one communal grave.  The baby was remarkably well behaved during this, though I had to scrounge through the family's kitchen to find something to feed him a couple of times.  I dug through the evening and into the night, finally sitting down, planning to rest for a few minutes before continuing.  I leaned back against the wall, briefly holding the sleeping baby, and fell fast asleep.  I woke when the full rays of the sun were beating down on me, a tiny fist pulling on my hair.  Startled, I realised that falling asleep in the open in an area that darkspawn frequented was horrendously stupid, but somehow we had survived, the tiny baby and I, despite that.

 I fed him again, and found some cloth diapers to change him into.  I'd have given anything for some safety pins - or some huggies.  Disposable diapers were definitely a luxury I'd have paid for right then.  Tucking him back into the basket of laundry, for want of a better option, I finished the hole I had been digging and gently placed the first body in it.  As I was reaching for the second, I heard noise in the distance.  Pausing just briefly to listen, I realised what I was hearing was horses.  Lots of horses.  And they were coming fast.  I was quite sure that darkspawn didn't ride horses, and had no desire to try to explain to whoever was coming who I was.  I tucked the baby, who was sleeping again, under the laundry, back into the space his mother had shoved him before the attack.  Not knowing what else to do, I crept out into the field, finding a spot devoid of blood, that had yet to be harvested, and lay down, hoping the high grass would hide me. 

 In a couple of minutes, the cavalry finally arrived.  I saw the young woman from the day before, and she was being escorted by a contingent of heavily armoured, armed men.  She was crying as they came around the house, seeing as no one had answered her calls as they rode up.  The armed men quickly cleared the house and farmyard, determining no darkspawn were about, and no family members still lived.  And then the baby squalled, and the young woman dashed over to grab him out of the basket, hugging him desperately to her breast and sobbing.  One of the men kindly took her aside so she would not have to stare at the bodies of her slain family, and she shuffled away.

 I was close enough to hear snippets of the conversation, and determined that the man in the golden, shiny armour was indeed King Cailan.  He was as good looking as advertised.  That thought made me smile, just a little.  He and a couple of his men looked around, trying to determine what had happened.

 "There must have been someone else here.  Look.  All the bodies laid out neatly, and covered..."

 "...and someone has changed that baby's nappy, or I'm Andraste's husband." 

 "But how could someone have survived?  Maker, look at the number of them." 

 "...an Emissary.  Have you ever seen simple farm folk survive an Emissary?"

 "...seen an Emissary killed by a pitchfork?"

 "Could a darkspawn have done it and run?"

 "... eat the dead.  They don't bury'em."

 "Why in Andraste's name would anyone bury them?"

 "...an elf?  One of the Dalish?"

 "...get a pyre going, and burn those darkspawn too."

 I scrubbed a hand across my face, eyes gritty.  Stupid, stupid.  People in Ferelden don't bury their dead.  How could I forget?

 "...even oil, here, just waiting."

 "..whoever did it.  Strange they'd leave - the reward..."

 "...maybe an Apostate?  That might..."

 Finally, they finished building a pyre and burned the dead.  I watched as the flames burned into the night, as the men finally gathered up the young woman and her brother and headed out.  As the last of the men rode off into the night, I stood, bowing my head by the pyre, tears streaking down my face.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Two: Accepting Reality

 And suddenly I awoke.  I was somewhere dark, and quite confused.  What had happened after the pyre had burnt itself out?  I wasn't comfortable, exactly, but I was lying on something semi-soft.  I stayed still, trying to get my bearings, when I finally noticed the soft beeping, the discomfort in my hand.  An IV.  I was in a hospital, again.  The rest of it came rushing back - the blackouts, the dreams, the bus bench I had collapsed onto.  I could feel the tears trickle down my face.  All of it - the horror, the fighting, the blood, the digging, that baby...all of it was a dream.  I rolled over, careful of the IV, and sobbed.  What on earth was wrong with me?  A nurse hustled in, noticing my movement.  She laid a sympathetic hand on my shoulder while I cried.  Eventually she helped me sit up, checking my vitals and my IV, before promising to get the doctor.

 "Wait.  How...how long?  How long was I unconscious?"

 "Almost two days.  You had us scared.  I'm glad to see you back awake.  Try to relax now, okay?  But don't fall asleep just yet."

 I took mental stock of my body.  I didn't have a catheter this time.  That was good.  Just one IV, and it looked to only be running fluid.  Also good.  I didn't feel hazy, like I'd been given any meds.  Another check on the good side.  However, unlike previous blackouts, I hurt.  Everywhere.  My back was in agony, and I wondered how long I had been slumped on that bus bench before the paramedics came.  My feet and my hands were the next items that bothered me.  I sat up further, turning up the lights, to get a better look, and stopped, stunned.

 Both of my palms were covered in blisters.  My nails were chipped, and in some places torn off.  They reminded me of the time I tried to take up gardening, with disastrous results.  They looked...like I had been digging.  A lot.  I checked my feet next, and discovered they also were not in good shape.  I had a few superficial splinters, several scrapes, and some blisters there as well.  What the hell?

 I was still sitting, motionless, staring, when the doctor arrived.  I'd met this one before, and sighed with relief as I saw him come through the door - he was one of the nice ones.  One of the few who didn't think I was an escaped psych patient.  I still covered my feet and clasped my hands together so he wouldn't see what I had discovered.

 "I'm glad you're awake, Sierra."

 "Hey, doc.  Come here often?" 

 He laughed, and pulled over a stool.

 "It's getting worse, isn't it?" 

 I nodded.  "Two days, this time.  It's my new record."  He smiled, but I could see a shadow of worry in his face.  "I had no idea panic attacks could be like this."

 "They aren't panic attacks, Sierra.  I don't know what they are, but I can tell you, they aren't that."

 "How do you know?"

 "Well...a lot of ways.  I mean, you aren't awake at all, during those times.  You don't respond to pain.  No panic attack leaves someone unable to respond to pain.  This time, we did an EEG while you were out.  Tracing your brain waves?  I thought maybe it was some weird form of seizure..." 

 I nodded in understanding.  I'd heard of EEGs.  I'd had one, once, earlier on in the blackout progression. 

 "Well, not only was it not a seizure...Sierra, I've never seen an EEG like this.  It was completely flat.  Even brain death leaves a particular pattern.  You never, never, see one that's completely flat.  I don't have the slightest idea what could cause that."

 Now I was worried.  Well, more worried.  "Was I dead?"

 "No, no.  I mean, you were breathing, your heart was beating.  There was no sign of anything wrong.  Just...it was like no one was home."  He paused.  "Do you remember anything?  I've always had the feeling you weren't telling me everything.  I'm not going to tell anyone things you want kept confidential, but anything could help.  Please."

 I studied his face, thinking.  Finally I decided to tell part of the truth, and see how he reacted.

 "I...was dreaming."

 "Dreaming?"  I nodded.  "About what?"

 "Oh, you know.  Dream stuff.  Nightmares, really.  You know, monsters and dragons.  That sort of thing."

 "That would certainly explain the screaming when you woke up, sometimes." 

 I nodded sheepishly. 

 "But...did you dream this time?"  When I nodded again, he continued, "But...that's just not..."  he stopped, obviously thinking.  I waited. 

 "That's not possible!  I had the EEG running all night, and most of today.  If you'd been dreaming, I should have seen a REM sleep pattern.  There wasn't."  He looked up again.  "There's something else, I can see it on your face.  Will you tell me?"

 I bit my lip, trying to decide.  Maybe he'd lock me away in the psych ward.

 Maybe that's where I belong.  I finally nodded. 

 I turned my hands over, holding out my damaged palms, and pulling up the blankets so he could see my feet.  He looked at them, his face flickering from confused, to surprised, to...concerned?  Angry?  I couldn't tell.  He got up, assuring me he'd be right back, and stepped out.  He came back momentarily with an armful of supplies, and shut the door in the face of a red-faced nurse.  He settled back onto a stool, opening up supplies, and took to coating my hands and feet with a sick-smelling, greasy substance.  It took a few seconds before the pain eased off, and I smiled gratefully.  Thank god for topical painkillers.  He then proceeded to wash out my wounds, pulling out splinters and scrubbing away dirt, all the while muttering curses under his breath about the incompetence that no one noticing my injuries.  I got the impression it was aimed at himself as much as anyone else.  Finally satisfied, he eyed some of the larger splinters he'd removed speculatively, before raising an eyebrow and meeting my gaze.

 "Want to tell me where those all came from?  Some of the ones in your feet look like pine needles.  Where on earth would you get pine splinters?"

 "That's just it.  Nowhere.  I live here.  Downtown, even.  I haven't left the city in months.  There aren't any parks around, and even if there were...I don't make a habit of going there barefoot, in the middle of winter.  It may not be snowing yet, but...I'm pretty sure if I'd been walking around barefoot, you'd be treating frostbite, not splinters.  I don't do heavy labour.  I don't garden.  I have absolutely no idea how I could have blisters and splinters.  I...am I going crazy?"

 "If you're asking that, probably not."  He smiled.  "Crazy people are notorious for thinking they're sane.  They don't question." 

 I laughed.

 "But if you're asking that...you have some idea of how they got there, don't you.  You're afraid I'll lock you up.  Am I right?"  I looked away, miserable, finally nodding.  "I won't.  I promise.  I don't think you're crazy.  Try me, okay?"

 I let a few tears slip, before finally, finally describing my dream.  I avoided calling them darkspawn, leaving it as 'monsters', and I left out the details of the upcoming battle and the name of the king I'd heard the women discussing, but otherwise I told him everything.  The fight, the death, trying to bury all of those people.  Barefoot, because my shoes were uncomfortable and I hadn't thought to reclaim them.  I was openly sobbing by the end.  He just sat, looking confused.  I'm sure my expression echoed his, with the addition of the grief.  He finally shook his head, trying to give me a reassuring smile, and took his leave.  I cried a little while longer, and then lay in the bed, wondering when the straight jacket was coming.

 *********

 Two more boring days later, they released me from hospital again.  Nothing further had come of my tests, and my waking EEG was normal.  The doctor told me he'd spent some time looking up causes of a flat EEG, or dreaming causing injuries, but found nothing.  I could tell he was reluctant to let me go, but there was nothing demonstrably wrong with me.  Someone sick needed that bed.  So I called a cab and went home.  I convinced the cabby to stop for groceries on the way - everything I'd bought had gone missing, somehow - and I finally arrived home four days after leaving 'just for an hour'.  What a pain.

 Within a few more days my hands and feet had largely healed.  I spent some time reading through the Dragon Age wiki, trying to find out if the events I'd been part of were in the game and I'd just forgotten, but found nothing.   I tried searching on my own to see if anyone else described out-of-body experiences that were similar, or ended up on Thedas...all I found were communities of fan fiction writers.  Scratch that.  Not helping.  Wondering when I would black out again, I tried to ensure that I was wearing comfortable boots, and two pairs of socks, and heavy clothing at all times, in case somehow it helped the next time I was pulled to Thedas.  So sue me.  Blisters and splinters hurt

 That expanded to carrying items in my pockets that I thought would be useful if I ended up stuck there again.  Safety pins - I thought about that baby, hoping against hope he was safe.  Pencils.  Chalk.  A compass.  A Zippo lighter, full of lighter fluid, wrapped in a Ziploc bag.  String.  A tiny compact with a mirror.  A comb.  A print-out of a map of Thedas, from the wiki, also in a bag.  A small kinetic powered flashlight, and extra bulbs.  A spare pair of panties.  I briefly considered buying a taser, but how would I recharge it?  I tucked a Swiss army knife into my pants instead.  I ordered a kit for purifying water online - something to do with iodine.  I took a cab to a travel clinic, told them I was going to Africa, and got shots for everything I could think of, including updating my tetanus.  I put a waterproof mattress cover on my bed.

 The entire time, I felt like an ass for doing all of it.  Planning it, as though I could bring items with me when I was dreaming.  I did it anyway.  I had nothing to lose.  I spent the rest of the time playing the game.  It couldn't hurt to remember the details just a little bit better...

 The next dizzy spell hit me at home.  I was thankful.  I had just enough time to flop onto my bed, and hope for a couple of seconds that my stuff would come with me.  And then the blackness swallowed me.

 ********

 When I became aware again, I was in the woods.  Somewhere.  There was dim light, but I wasn't sure if it was dawn or dusk.  I had no idea which way I was facing, and no way to identify which woods I was in.  I listened carefully, hearing only the soft noises of birds and other small animals, and wind through the trees.  I did a quick personal inventory, shouting for joy when I found my feet in heavy boots, my own clothes, and all the treasures in my pockets.  My body had changed, like it had the last time, but somehow my dream clothes still fit my vastly different shape.  I thought about that for a few minutes, but then shrugged, recognising that I was going to drive myself mad if I thought about it too hard.  I pulled out the tiny compact, wondering what my face looked like in this new body.  I looked similar, I decided, though not quite the same as I looked at home.  This was almost...like a prettier version of me.  My nose was a bit smaller, my cheekbones a bit higher, my eyes a bit greener.  I liked it, though it felt weird to think of myself as pretty.  My hair was about the same, dark brown, long, and bone straight.  Suddenly curious, I put a hand up to my own ear.  Round.  I'm not an elf, clearly.  Huh.  I put the compact away.

 I noticed that it was getting lighter, so decided it must be dawn.  As the sun rose, I realised that it wasn't as bright as it should have been, due to a thick layer of mist as far as I could see.  The air smelled damp, with a slight hint of rot.  I decided to assume I was in the Korcari Wilds.  I recalled someone - was it Daveth?  Or maybe it was Maric, in the books - talking about how the mist never dissipated in the Korcari Wilds.  Using the compass in my pocket, I turned to face north and headed in that direction.  My hair was loose, so I tied it back with the string in my pockets, and pulled out a piece of chalk.  As I walked, I marked a tree with chalk every so often, just in case the compass somehow didn't work.  I found myself a sturdy walking stick, and felt very slightly better.  Not that I had a solid idea of where I was going, but doing something was better than doing nothing.  I noted, again with some delight, that this body was much better designed for travel than was my own.  I was able to keep a brisk pace, even with having to scramble through the woods at times, without wearing myself out too much.  As I walked, I tried looking for familiar landmarks from the Korcari Wilds in the game, but wasn't able to fully convince myself of anything.  Pixels don't exactly give you the true picture of a place.  So I walked.  And hoped, fervently, not to run into any darkspawn.  Or wolves.  Or anything else that wanted to eat me.

 I looked for water as I walked, but found nothing I would even consider trying to drink; it was all muddy puddles and greenish-tinged muck.  I supposed it wasn't that bad a thing - going to the bathroom in the woods wasn't something I was finding enjoyable.  Leaves are far inferior to toilet paper, and I had taken to drip-drying whenever possible.  Ick.

 Eventually I stumbled on a clearing, obviously the scene of a recent battle.  The stench was vile, and as I scanned the area I found several darkspawn corpses, left where they'd been killed.  Many of them had obvious knife or sword wounds, a few with arrows protruding.  I scavenged a sword, which was heavier than it looked, but somehow I felt better for being armed.  Not that I had any idea how to swing a sword.  I recalled hearing somewhere that you shouldn't carry a gun unless you were quite proficient in how to use it, lest it be used against you.  I hoped that the same could not be said for a sword.  I carried on, more convinced than ever that this was the Korcari Wilds.  Unless this was much later in the Blight than I hoped, it should be the only place with darkspawn, and I thought I knew who might have been tromping through these woods killing them off with swords not too long ago, too.

 Oh God, Ostagar.  It all came rushing back, and suddenly I realised I needed to bloody well hurry.  If I was going to assume that this was real, and not a dream, and I wanted to change the outcome in some way, I needed to get to Ostagar before the battle, and hope to hell I could find some way to convince Duncan, or Cailan, or someone, to change the battle plan before everyone was, well, dead.  Even if it was a dream, a happier ending would perhaps decrease the chances of me waking up screaming.  Right.  Walk faster, Sierra.

 I was able to advance more quickly, finding that I could follow a trail of darkspawn corpses.  The smell was so rank, much worse than normal decay, that I had no trouble finding the site of the next skirmish, and the next.  I was following the trail the wardens had taken through the Wilds.  I hoped it would lead me to Ostagar, not to Flemeth.  Ugh, Flemeth.  I shook my head and kept walking.  Even Flemeth would be better than stumbling blind - perhaps I could convince her to help.  I thought about that for a moment.  Or perhaps not. 

 I was headed uphill, as well as north, and that seemed right, from what I could remember.  I actually found the place where the group of warden recruits would have come across a dying soldier, recognising it by the number of mangled, obviously human remains.  Feeling slightly sick, I continued north, knowing I had to be close to Ostagar.  I finally glimpsed the wall of pikes I recalled passing through in the game, and knew I had found my destination.

 Ostagar was much larger than it appeared in game.  I supposed that shouldn't have been a surprise.  How much walking around, just to get from one tent to the next, do you really want to do in a computer game?  The ruin was enormous, and I found myself wondering exactly how many men had camped here. 

 The gate wasn't guarded.  That was the first thing that worried me.  I was quite sure that, prior to the battle, there were guards.  Not good.

 I crept through the gate, looking around warily.  There were a few people around, but none of them looked like soldiers.  Most were rushing around, and none seemed to notice me.  I decided to approach the first elf I found, hoping that they'd be less likely to question my clothes, more likely to help.  I felt guilty for that, but knew that any humans I ran into were likely to demand that I tell them who I was, and how I'd gotten there, whereas an elven servant might just let it pass since I was a human.  I wandered through the camp, gawking at the ruins.  I'd never really travelled far from home, never seen ancient ruins, and the scale of the buildings that once must have stood here was staggering.

 I finally managed to identify an elf, rushing through the camp.  She was a tiny thing, a good 6 inches shorter than I (not that I was completely sure how tall this body was), with dark hair.  I tried not to stare at her delicate, pointed ears - I was prepared for them, I had thought, but the reality was a bit more than I expected.  I thought they were quite beautiful, actually, but dragged my gaze off them to look the nervous young woman in the eye.

 "Excuse me.  Could you answer a question for me, please?" 

 She jumped, quickly averting her eyes, her fair skin blushing slightly.  She stared briefly at my sword, then looked away.  She nodded, but did not answer. 

 "Where is the army?  The Grey Wardens?"

 She looked up in surprise, then, but glanced away again quickly.  "They've gone to fight, my lady."

 I swore under my breath.  "How long ago did they march?"

 The confused expression became more noticeable, but she answered me.  "Two hours ago.  Or so.  My lady."  She dared to look in my eyes for a moment.  "Is my lady...feeling quite alright?"

 "Sierra.  Please...just call me Sierra.  I am...no.  Not alright, really.  Look.  I need to find the army.  I need to catch up to the King.  I need a few supplies, first.  Can you help me?  Please?  It's very important."

 "What do you need, my lady?"  I grimaced.  "Beg pardon.  Sierra."  I smiled.

 "I need a waterskin.  Some food.  Non-perishable.  Maybe some rope, and a dagger.  And something to carry it in.  Can you do that for me?" 

 "Yes, my...Sierra.  Right away."  I tried to look reassuring.  She smiled, just slightly, and led me towards a large tent, standing empty.  She grabbed a large waterskin, checking to see if I wanted it full - I nodded, and she slipped it into a cloth bag.  She picked up a handful of paper-wrapped parcels, food I assumed, and added them as well.  I had found a weapon rack on the back wall, and chose myself a wickedly sharp dagger in a sheath.  I grabbed some leather straps, and tied the sheath to my thigh.  Somehow, I suddenly felt very Lara Croft.  I almost giggled out loud, stifling it before the poor woman helping me had to wonder further about my sanity.  I turned, just as she was stuffing a length of rope into the pack.

 "My...Sierra.  I don't mean to be impertinent, but...are you going to pay for these things?"  I blinked, not even thinking that this was likely the quartermaster's tent, and of course, the supplies weren't free.  Stupid.  I had nothing to pay with, and if I took these things, even if by force, I knew this poor woman would think she would lose her job, if not worse.  Of course, I knew the quartermaster wasn't going to be back, but...oh, inspiration.

 "I'm a Grey Warden.  Can you add up the total, please, and I'll just sign for it on Duncan's bill?"  She nodded, obviously relieved.  I scrawled my name, with a quill of all things, getting ink all over my sleeve.  I tried to pretend I hadn't noticed.  I'm sure I failed.  I took the pack from her, slinging it inexpertly across my shoulder. 

 "Alright..."  I looked at this woman, and remembered coming back to Ostagar, after the battle, in the downloadable content in the game.  I knew she was going to die, along with anyone else left behind.  "Listen to me.  I'm a Grey Warden.  I want you to...talk to the other people remaining here in camp.  Anyone who will listen.  I want you to tell them to grab as much food as they can carry, and leave.  Now.  Head north, but avoid Redcliffe and Denerim.  Don't stop until you're well north of Lothering.  Leave as soon as you can, and don't look back.  Anyone who stays here will die.  Do you understand?  You must take what you can, and go."  Her eyes got larger and larger as I spoke, panic appearing on her face.  I put my hands on her shoulders, trying to look reassuring.  I wished I'd taken drama in school.

 "You've got a bit of time."  I hope.  "But don't wait too long.  Tell whomever you can, then go.  Promise me."  She finally met my eyes full on, examining my expression as though trying to see right through me.  I knew I was sincere; I hoped she saw it as well.  She finally nodded.  I patted her shoulder, then took my leave in the direction that she indicated the army had travelled.

 I hurried through the rest of the ruins as fast as I could, frantically thinking.  Did I go after Alistair, or the rest of the army?  If the battle was already underway, a field of darkspawn was perhaps not the place for me to be.  But if I went to the tower of Ishal, there were no guarantees that Flemeth would save me along with Alistair and whoever the new recruit was.  Thinking about Flemeth decided me.  Alistair would be safe; I'd take my chances trying to catch Duncan and Cailan.  Maybe I could change the outcome of the battle.  Maybe...it wasn't too late.

 Please, let it not be too late.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Three: Changing History

 I found the path the army had followed onto the field around Ostagar.  Loghain's army had turned off, to head up to the cliff; that I knew.  Instead, I went down.  As I walked, I started to hear a faint noise.  At first I couldn't identify it, but after a bit, as it grew louder, I realised what it was.  Screaming.  The sound of metal clashing on metal.  Swords hitting shields.  Oh God, the battle had started.  What on earth am I doing down here?  I have no place in a battle.  I barely know how to hold the sword I am carrying.  What was I thinking?

 Wait.  What on earth? I'm not on Earth anymore.  I guess, on Thedas, I just don't have much of a self-preservation instinct.  I kept moving, picking up my pace.

 The sound of battle grew to a deafening roar as I approached the rear of the army.  I swore as I realised that the army had already become disorganised, and instead of a united front, darkspawn squared off against individuals and small groups, fighting back-to-back, desperate.  I'd read a forum that claimed that the reason Loghain left the King to die was that he realised that he couldn't be saved - that due to poor tactics, Cailan had left him no choice.  I was indignant, when I read that, completely unwilling to admit that Loghain might be anything other than the evil bastard I thought he was.  For the first time, I wondered if it might be true.  I wasn't exactly a military strategist, but I was quite sure that the plan was to have the darkspawn all together, facing a united line of Fereldens, not this intermingled, chaotic swirl of violence.

 Well, crap.  The best laid plans, and all that, right?  I checked that the beacon on the tower of Ishal wasn't yet lit - thank God, that means Duncan isn't dead yet, at least in theory.  I secured my pack, hoisted that heavy damn sword, and started trying to weave through the crowd.  It was getting dark, and I couldn't decide if that was an advantage or a curse.  I took the opportunity to stab darkspawn in the back as I went, but didn't slow to engage with any of them.  Somehow, all the darkspawn I came across were miraculously...busy.  I'll have to thank my guardian angel later

 I just kept going, squeezing myself between groups of men and darkspawn.  I assumed the darkspawn didn't think of me as a threat, and in the heat of battle, there were more important things to do than spend precious time slaughtering innocents.  Or idiots.  Whichever label worked.  Apparently the men didn't see me as a threat either, frequently exclaiming in surprise when I scored a hit on a darkspawn about to cut off their head, or whatever.  I probably am the only woman in this battle, I guess that shouldn't be a shock.

 As I pushed forward, the ratio of men to darkspawn began to drop.  Things were getting more dangerous for a lone woman weaving through the battle.  Please don't die, please don't die...I had arrived, I could tell.  I was near or at the front lines, and the people fighting desperately on either side of me were Grey Wardens, I was sure of it.  These were by far the deadliest fighters I had seen so far, blocking and parrying, cutting down darkspawn with breathtaking grace.  I was briefly distracted by the deadly beauty of the dance, but still the darkspawn seemed to ignore me.  And then, I heard the roar.  Oh God, an ogre, what was I thinking?  There are fucking ogres up here.

 Trying to look small and unthreatening, I squeezed further onward.  I hadn't seen the King yet, in his golden armour, but if there were ogres ahead, I knew that's where he and Duncan would be.  I caught sight of a flash of gold, peeking out from around a small knot of whirling death, and arrived just in time to see Cailan lifted, squeezed, by the largest, most gruesome monster I could imagine.  The game sort of glossed over this a bit!  Cailan was still alive, weakly struggling, and I could feel hostile magic in the swarm of darkspawn behind that thing.  The air fairly crackled with it, just like at the farm.  Lovely.  Dozens of Emissaries.  I felt, more than saw, the beacon atop the tower of Ishal light, and knew I was out of time. 

 I was desperate, though not nearly stupid enough to rush an ogre, when I caught sight of someone who could be no one else than Duncan, squaring off with what must have been a hurlock alpha.  I screamed, fear and horror welling up in me…

 I'm too late, why am I always too late?

 …and felt something...weird.  I looked between Duncan and Cailan and saw both men enveloped in an ethereal white light, just as the ogre squeezed Cailan one last time and threw him to the ground.  All around me, Grey Wardens were dying.  I was covered in blood, none of it mine, and screaming like I would never stop, and I felt the ground shake, wondering what had exploded nearby.  But I realised that while it had messed with everyone’s balance, only the darkspawn seemed to be truly troubled by it.  It dawned on me: there must be a mage somewhere nearby.  A friendly one.  A wave of energy passed through the lines of darkspawn near me, their bodies slamming to the ground, blood bursting into the air in a red mist.  And then I was falling, and I couldn't catch myself, and oh God, I'm going to die.  The last thing I saw, before I blacked out, was Duncan crawling over to Cailan's still form, collapsing at his side.  But I thought, just before the darkness took me, that I could see his chest rise and fall.

 Still breathing.

 ********

 I woke, actually expecting to be in my own bed at home.  It seemed such a natural transition - black out in one world, wake in another.  I kept my eyes closed, thinking to luxuriate in a soft bed for a few more minutes, wondering if I'd have bruises or cuts as fallout from the insane day I had spent in Ferelden.  I certainly had a hell of a headache.  But I must have been sleeping in a weird position, or something, because my back was sore, and something hard was poking my hip, and what sort of food did I leave rotting in the kitchen to smell like that?  I opened my eyes and saw...blue sky.  I turned my head and groaned - there was an ogre corpse practically on top of me.  The smell started to make sense.

 Shakily, I sat up, my head clearing as the details of the battle returned.  I filed away the fact that, apparently, I could black out here without returning home, deciding to think about it later.  Somewhere that smelled better.  Looking around, I saw that I was surrounded by dozens upon dozens of corpses.  Most of them were darkspawn, but there were many people as well, and I just couldn't look at them, or I'd start screaming again.  Nothing on the field was moving.  There weren't even birds, and I figured that probably, even vultures were too smart to eat anything coming from this tainted cesspool.  Wait.  Do they have vultures in Ferelden?

 I stood, my legs unsteady, but finally able to get the vantage point I needed.  The last time I saw Duncan and Cailan was...over there.  I headed in the appropriate direction, eyes skirting around the mangled remains I was stepping over, until I found them.  Duncan had made it to Cailan's side, sword still in hand.  They were both bloody, and I stifled my horror to lean down and touch Duncan's face.  It was warm, and he twitched with the slight contact.  I screamed, clapping my hand over my mouth a second later, embarrassed.  The living aren't supposed to be what's freaking you out right now.  Keep it together, Sierra.  Stepping around Duncan, I bent over to do the same for Cailan.  I had to kneel to get the right leverage to shove his dented helm up to expose skin, but his breath briefly misted the metal surface, and I smiled.  I had just witnessed that the events of the game could be changed.

 My wandering eyes noted a mangled piece of human flesh, and my momentary elation faded.  It hadn't changed enough, apparently.  These two may have been saved, somehow...but the fact that no one had checked for survivors meant there still wasn't anyone left standing at the end of the battle.  I slumped down, a sob welling in my throat, when I heard a quiet groan.  Duncan stirred, and I repressed the sob to crawl over and kneel beside him.  His eyes fluttered open, unfocused for a few moments, and then with a grunt, he rolled over.  Right into my lap.  I swore, his armour digging into my thigh, but managed to catch myself before I fell back.  His eyes snapped to my face, finally clear, but clearly confused.  I extricated my leg from under him, knelt beside him with another pained oath, and offered him my hand.  I pulled him up to sit, watching as he turned his head to see the rest of the battlefield.  His gaze settled on Cailan, and I hurried to reassure him.

 "He lives, Duncan.  I don't know how badly he is injured - well, frankly, I don't know how badly you are injured, either, but he's still breathing."  Duncan looked back at me, eyebrows pressing together.

 "You have me at a disadvantage, my lady.  Might I know your name?  And how I, or rather, we, survived...this?" 

 "Sierra.  My name is Sierra.  And I have absolutely no idea, to be honest.  I was looking for you, but I got here too late, and then I blacked out."

 "Yet somehow, I still live, as does the King.  Unless there is someone else around I should thank, you appear to be the one to be grateful to." 

 "Um.  Well.  You're welcome, I suppose."  I smiled, but those eyebrows remained furrowed, his gaze shifting to take in my jeans, boots, and coat, and my smile faltered.

 "I'm quite certain I would have remembered you, had we met.  May I ask how you know my name?"

 "I, uh.  Well."  Sonofa...I had tried, but never did manage to come up with a convincing explanation for my presence here.  "That's a bit of a long story.  I think we should probably have that discussion somewhere safer.  And preferably cleaner.  And perhaps once we know how badly you and Ca...the King are injured.  Yes?"

 His words said "Fair enough," though his eyes told me he wasn't fooled for a minute.  Well, damn.  Wish I'd been born more creative.  I nodded, in silent recognition that we were going to have a very pointed discussion, once we were safe.

 "So," I asked, "uh...are you injured?"  Duncan looked to be doing the same internal survey I had done upon waking. 

 "I think I may...have a broken leg.  And I recall being hit by an axe, but I don't appear to have a hole in my chest, so perhaps I dreamed that."

 "Oh, God, really?  Wow, you are so calm.  I'd be screaming, I'm sure I would."  I babbled as I looked down at his leg, trying to distract myself from what I suddenly knew I'd see when I lifted the leg of his armour/pant things, and...yeah, that's gross.  There was bone sticking out, just above the ankle.  My face paled, and I wondered briefly if I was going to puke.  I felt a hand on my elbow, steadying me, and looked up to see Duncan studying my face.  Again.  "Sorry.  I'm not great with, you know.  Blood.  And stuff."  I closed my eyes, willing myself to pull it together.

 "So...I'm not sure that I'm going to be able to carry you out of here.  Especially if Ca...the King is also injured.  I'm not sure what to do.  Have you got any ideas?"  Stop trying to call him Cailan, dumbass.  He's a king, here.  You use a title.

 "I think I've got a poultice around here somewhere."  Duncan patted his belt, reaching in to pull out a piece of linen cloth, wrapped around a small vial of something red.  He handed it to me, and I took it, eyes widening in dismay.  Pressing a hotkey for a health poultice did not prepare me for...this.

 "I...right, sorry, I've never used one of these before.  You're going to have to talk me through this."

 Duncan's gaze scrutinised me again, and I fought not to blush again, to make him even more suspicious.  He guided me through resetting the bone, basically by grabbing his foot and pulling as hard as I could - yuck, that crunch is gross and wow, can that man scream - and then to applying a few drops of the liquid into the wound directly and the rest onto the cloth, which then was tied tightly around his leg.  I watched in amazement as the skin knit together and the pain written on his face eased.  He waited a few minutes, then gingerly moved the leg.  It was...fixed.  Not for the first time, I thought that magic is amazing.  I wish we had some of it in my world.

 I helped Duncan stand, still in awe that he could go from bone sticking out to walking normally in five minutes.  Well, mostly normally.  He definitely had a limp, but he was moving.  Together we leaned over Cailan.  Duncan was able to pry his helmet off, and we couldn't see any sort of head injury.  As he undid the breastplate, however, it was obvious that the ogre hadn't merely squeezed the man.  He had crushed him, right through his plate armour.  He had an indent in his chest where the armour had squished him, and on the opposite side, the skin had split, a rib poking out.  Again I fought not to vomit, but suddenly the man began to scream, and it took everything both Duncan and I had to hold him down, and the urge passed.  Duncan swiftly reached behind Cailan's belt, pulling out another poultice, repeating the steps I had taken with his.  He gave me a look, which I interpreted to mean that I was to hold him still, and Duncan pressed on the broken rib until it snapped back into place.  Cailan screamed again, thrashing, and I had to lie across him, using my entire body weight to hold down his arms.  Duncan poured in the solution, and then spread a larger poultice across his entire chest.  He moaned, as the bandage was pulled tight, and then, thankfully, passed out.

 His breathing had eased, and he now looked like he was merely sleeping.  In the middle of a battlefield full of corpses.  Ick.  Reassured, Duncan took a few moments to survey the rest of the field.  Still nothing moved around us, the air unnaturally still and quiet.  His eyes lit on the ogre that had nearly killed Cailan, and he walked over to remove Cailan's sword from the thing's hide.  Ew.  I realised I had dropped my own scavenged blade, and spent a few minutes assessing the weapons within sight.  I looked to Duncan for permission, and finally picked up a lighter, sharper looking sword that was still held by a nearby human hand.  I shuddered as I accidentally bumped the cold, clammy flesh.  I looked up, to find Duncan standing near where I'd been when I blacked out during the battle, looking around.  The confusion on his face intensified as he studied the corpses around him, and he headed towards where I remembered the magic aura coming from.  I followed behind him, studying his face instead of the grisly scene at my feet.  He didn't say anything, but I caught him looking at me quizzically a few times when he thought I wasn't watching. 

 Cailan finally stirred again, and Duncan rushed back over to him.

 "Your Majesty.  Can you hear me?"  Cailan seemed to be struggling to sit up, but Duncan held him down without difficulty.  "Don't move.  I don't know what other injuries you might have sustained."

 "Duncan?"

 "Yes, Sire.  Relax, you're safe for now.  How do you feel?"

 "Like I've been chewed up and spat out by an ogre, actually."  I couldn't help it.  I giggled.  The game didn't really prepare me for Cailan to have a sense of humour.  A wry grin spread across Cailan's face, and he opened one eye, cautiously, to peer at me.  "Off with her head.  No one laughs at me."  He winked, and even Duncan chuckled.

 "I think I'd like to recommend you not execute the person who saved us.  At least until we have a chance to question her properly.  Sire."  Cailan appeared to think about this for a moment, and then nodded, his grin widening.

 "Excellent suggestion.  What's it to be?  The rack?"

 "I'm sure your Majesty can come up with all sorts of torture later.  For now, I'm going to assume that if you're able to joke about things, you mustn't be feeling too badly.  Would you like to sit up?" 

 It took both Duncan and I hauling, but eventually Cailan was seated.  His armour though - it was a mess, dented, torn, and bent.  Good thing I know an armourer in Denerim who can fix that.  The thought staggered me for a minute.  For a moment, I had almost forgotten that to me, this was just a game.  I'd never actually met Wade in person.  I pinched the bridge of my nose, trying to stop the thoughts.  Think later, Sierra.

 Introductions were made between myself and Cailan.  I had absolutely no idea what to say, so I just murmured 'Your Majesty' and bowed my head.  Duncan raised an eyebrow, but neither man appeared offended, and I breathed a sigh of relief.  Cailan coughed, rubbing his filthy face with a filthier sleeve.

 "Andraste's ass, I'm thirsty."

 "Oh!  I didn't think.  Sorry, that was stupid."  I dropped the bag from my shoulder, fishing through to grab the large water skin inside.  I passed it to Cailan, who drank, then handed it off to Duncan, who in turn gave it back to me.  I drank as well, the water warm but at least moist, and put the skin away again.  Duncan took the opportunity to peer into my bag as well, noting the rations, and the rope.  He nodded, and I re-shouldered the bag.

 "I don't think it is safe to assume we are out of danger here, your Majesty," Duncan said.  "I think we should probably move as far as we are able today, put as much ground between us and Ostagar as possible.  Do you have any idea where you'd like to go initially?"

 I cleared my throat before Cailan could respond, and Duncan raised an eyebrow.  "You have a suggestion?"  I nodded, blushing.  Damn my pasty skin.

 "I suspect we need to get some things that his Majesty left at the camp in Ostagar, first," Cailan started, but then reluctantly nodded, "but then I would suggest we head towards Lothering.  We can probably meet up with Alistair and ...” I trailed off, realising I had no way to know which origin story this Warden came from, never mind his - her? - name.  "...the new recruit?  In Lothering."

 Duncan stared at me with narrowed eyes.  Of course.  He didn't know they lived, and had no way of knowing where they would be if they did.  I must have sounded like a lunatic in that moment.  When we finally have time to have this conversation, I'm going to need all my wits with me for them not to dismiss me as completely insane.  I sighed.

 "I'm sorry.  What's the new Warden's name, again?"  I asked.

 "Aedan."  Both Cailan and Duncan replied at once.  It was my turn to raise my eyebrows.

 "Aedan...Cousland?"  They both nodded, and I struggled to keep my expression calm.  For how often I played the human noble origin, this...felt like finding out I had a long lost brother, or something.  And somehow, I was relieved that it was a man.  No competition for...Inappropriate, Sierra.  "Right.  Alistair and Aedan survived and are currently somewhere in the Korcari Wilds.  They will eventually head to Lothering.  I know it's asking a lot, but please, trust me.  It's going to be the easiest place to meet up with them."

 Duncan gazed into my eyes for an agonising minute, silent.  Cailan seemed content to go along with whatever Duncan decided.  Finally, Duncan nodded. 

 "Lothering makes sense, as it's the nearest settlement of any size anyway, Your Majesty.  But, Lady Sierra, you are going to tell me how you know this.  And..." he pointed vaguely at the battlefield around us, "what happened here.  Tonight, wherever we camp." I nodded.  It wasn't a question.

 ********

 We scavenged a not too badly damaged set of chain armour off a nearby corpse - well, Duncan and Cailan did, while I covered my eyes trying not to retch - and left Cailan's fancy plate behind in the chest at Ostagar.  It would attract too much attention, too easily identify Cailan to anyone who thought to get themselves a ransom.  Duncan also managed to convince Cailan that he needed to change his appearance, before I seconded the point, and he agreed, reluctantly, to allow his hair to be cut.  I used the dagger strapped to my thigh, and while it wasn't anywhere near as fashionable as he might have liked, it was serviceably shaggy and changed his appearance drastically.  He looked like Alistair, I realised, and felt my stupid heart skip a beat.  Stop thinking about Alistair like that!   I convinced Duncan to cut his hair as well, and my dagger worked well enough for that, too.  Once Duncan shaved, I doubted anyone who didn't know them well would recognise either of them from a distance.   I mentioned shaving, and Duncan gave an exaggerated sigh.

 As I hoped, Cailan still had a key to his own chest (he’d given someone the spare, not the original, for safekeeping) and was able to recover the documents that I remember learning about from the 'return to Ostagar' downloadable content.  He was still giving me weird looks for knowing he needed to do it.

 The camp had obviously been overrun, and almost everything had been damaged or tainted.  We didn't salvage any more food or equipment except what I already carried.  I was happy to notice there were far fewer corpses than there had been people when I came through the camp the evening before, though I did realise that most of the corpses I could see were human.  No pointed ears to be seen anywhere.  I guessed the human servants hadn't been keen to listen to the poor elf who helped me.  I sighed.  Duncan commented on the low number of bodies as well, and I mentioned that I had told a servant to take as many people as she could and leave.  Duncan's eyes narrowed again as he looked at me, but I just shrugged, trying to look nonchalant.

 Duncan took the lead as we left Ostagar, Cailan trailing a little behind.  I tried to follow him, but he seemed determined to walk beside me, not in front.  Duncan's pace was a little too aggressive for much talking, and I mentally thanked whatever magic that had given me this body instead of my own - I was able to keep up, if it did leave me a bit breathless.  We nibbled on the rations in my pack as we walked, and after I had handed them out Duncan insisted he carry it for a while to give my shoulder a rest.  As the only one of us who hadn't really been injured, I objected, but he just picked it up and strode off, leaving me either to allow it or chase him to get it back.  I rolled my eyes, and Cailan laughed.

 "Never underestimate the stubbornness of a Grey Warden," he whispered, just loud enough to ensure Duncan heard him.  I snickered.

 Bathroom stops became suddenly that much worse than just peeing in the woods.  Now I had two impatient men waiting for me, so drip-drying was no longer an option.  At least so far none of the leaves I'd scavenged had been poison ivy or anything.  I hoped.

 We stopped well before dark, making camp by a small stream, in a valley between two small hills.  Duncan left me with Cailan to collect wood and try to build a small fire, while he went to go 'scouting'.  At first, Cailan tried to chat, but I was incredibly...awkward.  I didn't want to get into details of my identity and origin, as it were, until Duncan was back, and I truly had no idea how to address a King when making small talk.  I remembered not to call him by name, just barely, but that left me throwing far too many 'your majesties' into the conversation.  He probably thought I was simple-minded, if not deranged.  I'm building a campfire in a computer game world.  Of course I'm deranged.

 I finally grabbed a small pile of twigs and dry grass, offering to light the fire if he would find some larger pieces of wood.

 "Oh good.  I hoped you would know how.  It's embarrassing, but I've never camped outside before without an army of servants to do the whole 'build a fire' thing.  I doubt I can be much help, really."

 He wandered a little way off, and I built a teepee of twigs around the pile of grass, inside a larger ring of stones, as per my vague recollection from the school camping trip we took in about eighth grade.  I checked to ensure he wasn't looking, then slipped my hand into my pocket and pulled out the Zippo lighter I had hidden there.  Striking it, I lit the grass, and after a few moments of hoping, the kindling lit.  I breathed a sigh of relief and put away the plastic-wrapped lighter.  I took one small water purification tablet out of my pocket, surreptitiously adding it to the water skin, before refilling the skin from the stream.  When Cailan returned, we slowly added sticks to the fire until we had a small blaze.  Cailan looked impressed.  I blushed.  I found a rock to lean back against, pulling my knees up to my chest and letting my head fall back, closing my eyes, feigning fatigue to avoid more awkward chit chat.  Cailan lounged on his side on the opposite side of the fire, looking sad and thoughtful, in addition to bone tired.  He fell silent and let me be.  Thank God for small mercies. 

 Duncan returned after a bit, declaring us safe from darkspawn.  He was carrying a small, furry, dead animal.  Rabbit, I discovered.  I wondered if I would gag, wistfully thinking about sterile looking, plastic wrapped meats at the supermarket at home.  Duncan methodically skinned and gutted the creature and fabricated a makeshift spit, setting it to roast over the fire.  If he was surprised that between us, we had managed to light a fire, he didn't say it.  He crouched, more than sat, tensed to spring, silently staring into the fire for a few minutes.  The silence seemed almost companionable, but I knew it couldn't last.  Duncan had Questions - I could practically hear the capital Q.  I had decided that, when he asked, I would just spill the entire story, in whatever way I could think of to make it make sense, and see what happened.  Duncan finally cleared his throat.

 "So, my Lady.  I'm quite sure we have never met, yet you seem to know me, and I'm certain there were no women in the army or with the Grey Wardens.  You're not a servant; by attitude, you act like a noble, but you know how to start a fire, and you don't know how to use a health poultice.  You show up on the battlefield, apparently looking for me, in the middle of a battle that none of the three of us should have survived.  You are quite the mystery.  Care to start with who you are and where you came from?"

 "I...well.  That's sort of a big question.  First off, I'm not a lady, so you can stop calling me that.  I'm just Sierra.  I'm not from here.  From Thedas, I mean."  Cailan looked like he was about to interrupt, but Duncan raised a hand and he stopped.  "In fact, compared to here, I'm not exactly sure where I come from.  I know, that's weird.  I..."  I trailed off, thinking.  "Somehow, I came here by magic, I guess.  I wasn't planning it, but something, somehow, brought me here.  I woke up yesterday in the middle of the Korcari Wilds.

 "Where I come from is a really different sort of place.  And my people have, well, it would seem like magic, I'm sure, but it isn't quite.  There's no magic in my world, just science.  But regardless of how it works, my people have a way of seeing other places.  Like Thedas.  You just look through a special window, and can see what's happening in other worlds.  We don't have the ability to travel to them, but we can watch.  We can interact, a little bit.  It's sort of like...a sending stone?  In a limited way, we can even see into the future of the places that we watch.

 "So over the past while, I've been watching Thedas.  It's very different than where I come from, so it's interesting.  As such, I've been able to watch some of the events leading up to the ending of the Blight.  I can't see everything, and the timing of events is hazy at best, but...it means that, in a limited way, I know what's going to happen in the next year or two.  Though apparently what I know can be changed, so I'm afraid of what that means overall.

 "I had a little bit of warning I was coming here, though I didn't expect it to be like this.  I've been having these episodes.  I get dizzy, I pass out, and when I wake, I'm in Thedas.  I stay here for a while, and then eventually wake up again, at home.  I thought they were dreams, at first.  The doc...healers, at home, haven't been able to figure out what is happening.  But then, a few days ago, I woke at a farm, and had to watch darkspawn slaughter an entire family.  I tried to help, but...but...I don't know how to fight, it's not something I do at home, and I wasn't able to save them.  Except for the baby.  When it was over, I tried to bury the people - that's what we do with the dead, at home - but then I heard horses, and I hid...and when I woke, I was back at home but covered in splinters and cuts and bruises.  Dreams just don't do that!"  I was babbling, by this point, the horror of that day at the farm still fresh, tears streaming down my face.  I sniffled and wiped my face angrily on my sleeve, trying to hold it together, trying not to sound insane, but the tears just kept coming.  Maybe I am insane.  Don't forget, that's entirely possible.

 "After that, I figured I might end up here again.  When I realised I was in the Korcari Wilds, I headed to Ostagar, since that was the only place I knew how to find.  I had no idea if it was before or after the battle.  When I saw all the darkspawn corpses in the Wilds, I knew that the Grey Warden recruits had been... "  Duncan gave me a startled look, and I realised how close I had come to revealing Grey Warden secrets.  "...scouting...so I figured it was close to the battle.  I knew what was going to happen, and I tried to get there sooner, I really did, but I wasn't fast enough.  So instead I tried to catch up to you, to convince you to withdraw or, I don't know, something, before Loghain abandoned you...but I was too late for that, too.  The battle had started, and there were so many darkspawn, and people dying everywhere...It took me forever to find you, and by the time I did, that ogre had...and then I thought I had lost you both, that I was going to have to watch you die in person, instead of, uh, through the window, and...I don't know what happened.  The ground shook, and a bunch of darkspawn died, and I figured there must have been a mage somewhere that I couldn't see...and then I passed out.  Woke up moments before you did, Duncan."

 I stopped talking, concentrating on trying not to weep.  Before the farm, I had never seen a dead body in my life.  Definitely had never seen a battle, or a darkspawn, a monster.  Playing computer games had not prepared me for the violence, the noise, the smells of people screaming and fighting and dying.  Even now that coppery scent of blood still lingered in my nose, and I wondered if it would ever go away.  Finally allowing myself to realise how dangerous, how insane this was, how incredibly stupid I'd been to wade into the middle of that battle, the tears turned into full out sobs, and I put my head on my knees and fell apart.  After a few stunned moments, it was Cailan who came over and put a hesitant hand on my arm.  When I didn't object, he put his arm over my shoulders, comforting me, and I eventually curled into his side and bawled.  I hated myself for doing it, but couldn't seem to stop.  Finally, after what felt like hours but was probably only minutes, I fell asleep, my head still on the shoulder of the King of Ferelden.  What a mind fuck.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four: Plausible Deniability

 When I woke, it was dark.  I was curled in a ball, laying on the hard ground, but realised my head was pillowed somehow...

 Memories came rushing back.  Oh God, my head is in Cailan's lap.  I briefly worried about my body, at home - two days now, at least, without food or water, lying in my own waste, unless someone had found me.  Knowing there was nothing I could do about it, I tried to put it out of my mind.  Undecided what to do, I lay still, and realised Duncan and Cailan were talking quietly.  I listened, too exhausted to bother even sitting up.

 "Her story sounds insane."

 "I know, Duncan.  But somehow I still believe her.  Don't you?  I mean, she knew about the battle.  She knew Loghain would betray us, knew we would die.  Knew all the servants still in camp would die.  Somehow, this strangely dressed woman just shows up, in the middle of nowhere, knowing the future?  I'm guessing by the look on your face she knows more about the infamous Grey Warden secrets than she's supposed to, but she doesn't know the normal things about being here.  You should have heard us talking while you were scouting.  She's quite obviously never spoken to royalty before, which isn't that unusual if she's a commoner, but then you're right - she sure acts like a noble, and none of even the minor nobility would be so confused about the protocol when speaking to me."

 "I still don't like it, your Majesty.”  Duncan sounded concerned.  “There's more to this story.  She is involved, somehow, in how we survived.  Which I'm grateful for, don't get me wrong, but she is either hiding something, or completely mad.  There's no way this girl could have found her way through the mess that battle turned into without injury unless she has some sort of skills, but she practically swoons at the sight of blood, so she's clearly no fighter."

 Duncan thought, trying to explain his concern.  "Did you see the ranks of dead Emissaries near where we woke?  There was a blast pattern, radiating out from where she must have been standing.  She killed them, I'm sure of it.  We both know the mages were way in the back, and most of them would have left with Loghain.  There weren't any with the Grey Wardens or on the front lines."

 "That's like the farm she mentioned.  I was there, Duncan.  There were dead darkspawn everywhere, and an Emissary, even.  There was an entire slaughtered family, covered with blankets, arms crossed on their chests, and a huge pit someone had dug to bury their corpses.  We didn't tell anyone about it, and sent the only survivors off to safety in the north - how would she have heard about it unless she was there?  She must have killed those darkspawn too, somehow.  Maybe she's a mage?  An apostate?  She's clearly terrified."

 "Your Majesty, I know you have a weakness for damsels in distress, but please try not to look at her like that?"  Cailan chuckled, and I felt his hand stroke my hair softly, once.  Duncan sighed.  "Being an apostate still wouldn't explain her uncanny knowledge.  I don't know if Loghain planned his treachery in advance..." the tone of this said they'd already had this discussion, possibly more than once, while I slept, "but if he did he wouldn't have let someone who knew about it slip out of his grasp.  And how does she know about Alistair and Aedan?  We didn't tell anyone he was a Cousland - you and I were the only two who knew.  Alistair didn't even know!  But she does.  Yet...no one can know the future.  Not even the most powerful magic could possibly explain what she claims to know."

 "I told you it isn't magic," I complained.  Cailan jumped at the sound of my muffled voice, and I took the opportunity to disentangle myself from him.  My face felt gritty, my mouth was full of cotton balls, and my back was sore in a way it hadn't been since I was a little girl, falling asleep in my toy box to hide from monsters.  I stretched, nodded my thanks to Duncan who passed me the water, and took a swig.  To their amusement, I also poured a small amount of water onto my hands, scrubbing vaguely at the dirt encrusted there, and then also on my face. Feeling damp but far more human, I passed the water back.  I turned to Cailan, trying to keep from blushing, and failing.

 "Thank you, Your Majesty.  For the...uh, comfort.  And the pillow."  I clasped my hands over my mouth, embarrassed anew.  Cailan threw back his head and laughed.

 "You're more than welcome.  I'm sorry you overheard us discussing that.  We should have gone out of earshot, but I didn't want to disturb you."

 "It's okay.  Neither of you have any reason to trust me, your Majesty.  You'd be perfectly within your rights to have me imprisoned, or worse."

 "We're rather short of prison cells at the moment, my Lady."  He winked at me again, and I giggled, even as Duncan snorted.  "Are you hungry?"  He gestured towards the remainder of the rabbit carcass, and I shook my head, my stomach rebelling at the thought.  I can see eating here is going to be a problem

 "If it helps, your Majesty, I will give you my oath to answer all of your questions to the best of my ability.  And to offer what meagre help I can to you both.  And hopefully in time I can prove my good intentions.  Or I'll disappear somehow, and you won't have to worry about me either way."  I didn't know whether I'd be disappointed or relieved if - or rather, when - that happened.

 "Before we get into that, I'd like to point something out.  You shouldn't be calling me 'your majesty' anymore.  Either of you."  Duncan and I both protested, but he continued anyway.

 "We've gone to some effort to hide my identity.  It would be a shame to waste it all the first time one of you bows, or calls me 'your majesty' in public, wouldn't it?  I'd hate to have cut my hair for nothing."  He ran a rueful hand over his blond mess, and I laughed again.

 "But what should we call you?  Ca...your name isn't going to be much less recognisable." 

 "You're allowed to say it, you know."  At my questioning glance, he elaborated.  "My name.  Please.  If you expect me to call you Sierra, you can at least call me Cailan."  I nodded, grateful.

 "You're right, Cailan.  This goes for you too, Duncan.  You need aliases.  What would you like to be called?  We should probably take to practicing right away."

 "Ooh!  I've always wanted an alias!  Let me think.  What name should I use?  I need something bold, a name for a handsome hero of legend, no?  What about...oh, I know!  I shall be Garahel, named after the man who killed the last Archdemon during the fourth Blight.  Perfect!"

 "Your Ma...Cailan.  If the goal is to remain unnoticed, perhaps a name that wouldn't draw so much attention?"  Duncan asked drily.  He looked somehow both amused and annoyed.  Cailan was smirking, and I realised he was baiting Duncan.  I covered a giggle with a fake cough.

 "Wasn't Garahel an elf?" 

 "Perhaps you would like to bestow our aliases upon us then, dear lady."  Cailan quirked an eyebrow, and I knew my giggle had been caught.

 "Oh God.  Uh..."

 "God?  Do you mean the Maker?"

 "Another hard question.  At home, there are many different religions, but most of the common ones near where I live just call the deity God.  There are a lot of similarities to the Maker, from what I could tell.  I'm going to need to train myself to think different curse words here."  They looked skeptical.  I ignored them, shaking my head to clear it.  "Returning to the name question.  How about something quite common, then."  I wracked my brain, looking for NPC names I'd seen but who weren't major characters.  "How about...Theron, for you, Cailan, and Duncan, you can be...Tomas?"

 I saw them both consider, then nod.  We sat quietly for a moment, but I knew it wouldn't last.  All joking aside, they still had no reason to trust me.  I hit upon an inspiration, and started unlacing my boots.  I did have a few things I could use to back up my story, after all.  I passed one to a confused looking Du...Tomas, and the other to Theron.  They both looked down, surprised, but I saw Tomas' face immediately go blank, a mask to cover what he was thinking.  Theron still looked confused, but Tomas started slowly examining the boot in detail.  I saw him look at the stitching, the leather, the rubber sole, the thick laces.  Looking back up at me, his face still guarded, I shrugged. 

 "They're quite common, where I'm from.  They're not even particularly high quality."  That got a response, though I couldn't quite read the expression.  He lifted one of the laces, and raised an eyebrow.  "Nylon.  They're made of nylon.  It's a synthetic fabric."  Theron, less practiced at schooling his facial expressions, looked even more confused.  "Man made.  The fabric is...actually, I have no idea how nylon is made, but it isn't natural.  We have a science that I guess is similar to your alchemy?  They can make all sorts of things.  Nylon is just one of them."  I forestalled his next question.  "The stitches are done by a machine, not by hand.  That is how they're so regular."  Do they have machines here?  Hmm.  "The soles are rubber, which I think is made from the sap of some sort of tree.  Although maybe it’s synthetic too, now that I think about it.  Either way, it's incredibly hardy, and completely waterproof." 

 I took the boots back, lacing them into place, before taking off my jacket and handing it over.  Both - uh - Theron and Tomas looked at the zippers in amazement, opening and closing them multiple times.  Then they both exclaimed as I grabbed the water skin and trickled a little bit of water over the fabric, and they saw it run off without leaving the jacket damp.

 "Nylon, again, but backed with plastic.  Another man-made material, completely waterproof.  More flexible than rubber, more versatile.  You can buy a jacket like this for less than fifty dollars in any st...merchant shop.  They're made by machine and are incredibly cheap to produce."

 "Dollars?"  Theron asked.

 "Oh, right.  Um, money.  Coin.  Whatever you want to call it.  Let's see...how much would a loaf of bread cost, on average?"  I indicated a standard, supermarket sized loaf with my hands.  Theron looked embarrassed, and it didn't take much to realise why - he would have absolutely no way of knowing something like that.  I would have laughed if he didn't look so chagrined.  Tomas answered.

 "Perhaps...25 copper."

 "Okay.  Where I'm from, it would cost, say, two to three dollars.  So rough estimate, assuming the relative prices of other things are the same..."  I quickly did some math in my head.  "One silver is ten dollars.  That jacket would cost perhaps five silvers."  Both men looked at me incredulously.  "It's true!  I'm not considered wealthy, where I come from, but I have perhaps eight or ten pairs of footwear that would be similar in price to these boots, and probably six equivalent jackets.  Machines make producing these things quite inexpensive compared to having to get a cobbler to make shoes by hand, for example."  I shrugged my jacket back on, self-conscious now under two speculative gazes.

 "Yeah, okay, it sounds incredible to you, I'm sure.  But we don't have access to magic.  I mean, just think about health poultices.  Consider - in my world, you would both be dead from injuries which barely look to pain you at present.  We have our drawbacks, too."  I could see confusion warring with disbelief on both of their faces, but the disbelief seemed to be decreasing.  I hoped.

 I started emptying my pockets next.  They were both very interested in the safety pins, the compass, and even the small compact with a mirror and the plastic comb.  I showed off the flashlight, hand-charging the battery and then clicking it on, to appreciative oohs and ahhs.  Apparently, I'm a showboat.  When I brought out the lighter, they were both amazed, and both of them managed to burn their fingers before I got it safely tucked away again. 

 "You cheated!" exclaimed Theron.  "You let me think you started the fire from scratch."  I grinned and nodded, and he laughed.

 If I thought the other items in my pockets surprised them, the printout of the map of Ferelden completely stunned them.  Though it turned out it wasn't so much the map itself as the paper it was printed on, and the type of print.  I shrugged, giving the usual response - "a machine."

 The Swiss army knife was definitely the crowd favourite, however.  I wish I knew how to make them - I'd give one to Ca...Theron, and watch his head explode.  I wondered if it would be as funny to watch Alistair with it.

 Settling down against my rock again, I watched them pass my meagre belongings back and forth.  Finally, I tucked most of them into a pouch Du...Tomas produced from somewhere, and put them in the pack, inviting both men to help themselves if they needed something.  We sat quietly again for a while, and I watched both men think.

 "So...I'm sure it will take some time, but can you both consider the possibility that I'm telling the truth about where I'm from?"  Exchanging meaningful looks, eventually Theron nodded, but Tomas studied my face while I held my breath.  One of them may be the King, but I knew whose goodwill I needed if I was going to be able to help, to influence events in any way.  To stay alive, a small part of me whispered.  Shut up.  Finally, Duncan nodded, and I breathed a sigh of relief. 

 Duncan stirred.  "Would you explain how you know so much about Ferelden, then, in more detail?"

 "That's a hard one to explain.  I...okay.  Have you even been to see a theatre performance?  You know, actors, on a stage, acting out a story?"  Both men nodded.  "In my world, using more of the machines I keep trying to explain, we have found a way to record such performances.  And using yet another machine, those performances can be watched again, from home, through the window I told you about.  It's a form of entertainment.  Mostly they are dull, someone's idea of an epic romance or whatever.

 "In this case, it is a little different.  I'm forced to assume that someone else either dreamed of this place, in amazingly accurate detail, or visited here.  They created a version of Ferelden as one of these performances.  It starts at Castle Cousland, when you rescued Aedan from Arl Howe's betrayal.  It follows Aedan as he and Alistair have to combat the Blight, alone.  But this performance is a little bit different than most.  Using the window and a sort of sending stone, you can actually influence the decisions that Aedan and Alistair make.  You can help them decide where to go and who to talk to.  In this way, I witnessed the entire Blight through the eyes of Aedan.  It ends when the Archdemon is dead."

 "But...why?"  asked Theron.

 "Why what?  Why do people watch?  Another hard question."  I debated.

 "Why did you?"

 "Oh...a lot of reasons, I suppose.  One was boredom.  I lost my job - my employer went out of business - and I was having a hard time getting a new one.  So I was at home, alone, and bored.  Also, it's a sort of escape - my life is very safe, for which I am thankful, but very...dreary.  And very lonely.  It was an easy way to have something more exciting.  'Be a hero!  Meet interesting people!  Have an adventure!'  But never have to give up the comforts of home.  It seemed so harmless.  I didn't know it was real.  I thought it was just a performance."

 "So have other people watched our...performance?"

 "Yes.  Thousands upon thousands of people.  It's very popular."

 "I am almost afraid to ask.  In the performance...what happens?"

 Oh boy.  "Well...okay, so...Duncan rescues Aedan.  He becomes a Grey Warden.  And then Loghain betrays the army, and all is lost at Ostagar.  You both...die.  There is no way to change that part of it, in the performance."

 "I feel remarkably good for a dead man!"  Theron smiled, but the expression didn't reach his eyes.  He looked...haunted.  I couldn't blame him.

 "So, anyways, Aedan and Alistair are the only survivors.  Loghain returns to Denerim and declares himself regent, and basically starts a civil war.  Alistair and Aedan end up traveling around, to Redcliffe, and to see the Dalish, and Orzammar, and even the Circle Tower, using Grey Warden treaties to get everyone to pledge their aid to the cause.  Of course, it isn't that easy, and I can go into detail later if you like, but anyway, they meet a lot of friends, finally get everyone to agree to aid them, and then challenge Loghain in the Landsmeet.  If they win, they...uh...get the chance to figure out who will rule Ferelden, and then, they battle the darkspawn, kill the Archdemon.  And then the...uh...performance is over."

 "What do you mean, they figure out who will rule Ferelden?" Theron asked, at the same time Tomas blurted out "Who killed the Archdemon?"  Theron looked angry, so I thought to answer him first.  Oh boy.  I looked to Tomas for help, eyes pleading.  I didn't want to out Alistair in front of his half-brother, not without talking to him first.  Tomas looked startled, briefly, but then the mask dropped back into place and he stepped in so I didn't have to answer.

 "I'm sure there would be chaos in the Landsmeet, Your Majesty, after your death," he said, carefully.  I knew he used the honorific on purpose, this time.  "If Loghain was thought to be a traitor, then Anora would lose some support, and...it would take some work to get that all figured out, I imagine."  I hastily nodded, hoping the explanation would satisfy him.  It seemed to work.  And Alistair always thought Cailan must be so smart.

 Tomas raised his eyebrows at me, obviously waiting for my answer to his question next.  "It depends.  On what choices were made, during the, ah, performance."  I tried to indicate we should discuss it later.  He let it go, so I hoped he understood.

 "So...this time...we lived.  The battle was still lost, but...we didn't die.  What does that mean for the story?"  I looked up to find two sets of concerned, piercing eyes staring at me.  I sagged under their weight.

 "I have absolutely no idea.  I'm sorry."

Chapter Text

Chapter Five: Keeping Secrets

 Theron cleared his throat after a few awkward minutes.

 "One more question.  In this...performance, do you ever find out why?  Why did Loghain betray me?"

 "Not precisely.  There's a lot of debate over that issue, actually, between different people who pl...watched the performance.  Some say Loghain just went mad.  Power hungry.  Some figured that he hated you, because of some weird issue between him and your parents.  Some thought he truly did the best he could when he saw the overwhelming odds against you at Ostagar, and then went mad with guilt.  Others thought that perhaps..."  I hesitated.  What the hell, I'm curious too.  "...the battle didn't, uh, go according to plan, and between your line moving up too far and the beacon being lit too late, he could see that there was no chance to save you."  I could see Theron milling that over, trying to understand what I meant.  Duncan caught on quicker, his eyes flickering to my face, and he gave his head a small shake. 

 Huh.  Thought not.  I always knew Loghain was a jerk.

 "Personally?  I think it's because of what's in those papers you recovered from your chest at Ostagar."  Now it was Tomas' turn to look confused, and Theron's turn to be surprised by what I knew.  I had noticed that Theron didn't let either me or Tomas get a look at the contents of the chest.  The secrets were starting to get difficult to work around.  Remembering to say (nevermind think) the correct aliases was also difficult. 

 I sighed.  "Look.  I think both of you have questions, or want to talk about things, that the other shouldn't know.  You know, Grey Warden Secrets, Crown secrets, that sort of thing.  And I'm sure you both want to test my knowledge of said secrets, to better determine if I'm telling the truth.  I'm thinking that either you both agree that I can spill all of the ones I know in front of both of you,” I forestalled Tomas who opened his mouth, “just wait, I didn't say that was my preferred option! - or you agree to go for a walk for a while so I can talk to you one at a time.  What do you think?"

 Both men studiously avoided looking at each other and agreed with the latter.  It's amazing how easy it is to see what people's expressions mean when you know all their secrets!  But first Du...Tomas requested that before we did that, I recount the battle for him, again.

 I tried to describe my horror during the battle, my fear, but my determination to figure out some way not to leave Alistair and Aedan alone to combat the Blight.  I tried to leave out my ridiculous attachment to Alistair, and I think they both were too caught up in the details to notice.  I hope.  Tomas asked a lot of pointed questions about what and who I saw, the ratio of men to darkspawn, and that sort of thing.  I tried to answer as honestly as I could, but I truly hadn't been paying attention to the details at the time.  I described seeing Cailan picked up and then thrown by the ogre, Duncan get delayed by a very large hurlock, screaming a lot, hearing the Emissaries chanting, the ground rumbling below me as darkspawn started dropping dead, and then passing out.

 "We're missing something.  I don't understand.  Why would you being there, the only thing that changed between your performance and the reality, mean that Cailan and I lived?  And from what I could see as we picked our way off the field, there were several squads of human corpses missing from the battlefield.  I think somehow, some of the squads were actually able to successfully escape, which from what you've said, also didn't happen in your performance.  Whatever that rumbling was, I think it was effective enough that the front lines held so some of the back lines were able to retreat.  But the rumbling...there were no mage corpses that I saw, and with so few mages marching with us, there shouldn't have been any near enough the front lines to do that sort of damage.  I've never seen anything like that blast pattern near where we woke.

 "I have to ask, Sierra, though I'm sincerely hoping you would have told us by now if you were, but...are you a mage?"  My jaw dropped, and I let out a decidedly unladylike snort.

 "Me?  You must be joking.  I'm from a world without magic.  Any magic.  How would I have been born a mage?  And surely I'd know if I cast some sort of spell.  Wouldn't I?"

 "I don't know, my lady.  No, no, I believe you.  If you have magic, it's as much a surprise to you as it is to us.  Perhaps we will find the explanation later.  For now, I feel the need to go for a walk.  Your m...Theron, perhaps when you are done talking to Lady Sierra, you'd be so kind as to whistle or something?"  Theron nodded, and Tomas sprang up and walked out into the night.

 Theron looked at me thoughtfully while we waited for Tomas to get far enough away.  I expected him to test me, and I wasn't wrong.

 "So...tell me about the contents of the chest." 

 I nodded.  "Correspondence with the Empress of Orlais, if I recall correctly.  Pledging military aid, Chevaliers, and Grey Wardens on request.  You were forging peace with the Orlesians."

 "And why would that make Loghain betray me?"

 "Well, in isolation, it might not.  Although maybe it would.  It's no secret that Loghain hates Orlesians with an unholy dedication.  He's the Hero of River Dane, after all.  He sees conspiracies and invasion plans everywhere, and nothing you or anyone else says will ever change his mind.  To him, the darkspawn and civil war are a minor threat when compared to Orlais.  If he thought you were going to so much as show weakness in front of Empress Celene, never mind invite parts of her military into Ferelden, there's no doubt in my mind he'd betray you.  He'd either assume you were crazy, or a traitor yourself.  Add that to the rumours about Anora..."

 "Rumours?"  His eyes were hard now, glittering in the firelight.

 "Hey, don't shoot the messenger.  I'm just repeating what I've heard.  There was a rumour circulating that you were going to put Anora aside for being barren.  And I know Arl Eamon was pushing you to do just that.  The performance never confirmed whether you were going to go ahead with it.  But even the rumours...it would have been a huge blow to Loghain, both personally and politically.  And he would have had much less influence on you suddenly, fewer ways to keep the Orlesians out of Ferelden.

 "I'm curious.  Had you decided...?"  He shook his head, his expression conflicted.  That jived with the game - it at least implied that he loved Anora, although I couldn't imagine why anyone would love that backstabbing bitch.  Here's hoping he lives to see what she's really like.  I knew, at some point, I was going to end up getting myself in trouble by throwing my two cents in to the Royal Heir debate, but I decided to wait until I had spoken to Alistair, at least.

 "And it's not just you that he betrayed - he will arrange to have Arl Eamon poisoned, put a bounty on the heads of any surviving Grey Wardens, hire the Antivan Crows to assassinate Alistair and Aedan, and not stop Arl Howe from imprisoning and torturing Grey Wardens, templars, and nobles alike.  He is fomenting rebellion among the Circle, which will result in the loss of half the mages in Ferelden.  He will sell the elves from the Denerim Alienage into slavery to the Tevinters.  And when he loses in the Landsmeet, he will attempt to slaughter Alistair, Aedan, Eamon, and anyone else who would dare to stand up to him.  If he learns you are alive...I have no doubt that the bounty on your head will be truly breathtaking." 

 Theron swore, and I learned a few new good Ferelden curses.  "By the way.  Duncan,” Tomas, “knows most of this stuff.  Not necessarily the details of the correspondence with Celene, but...he's not stupid.  And you can trust him.  You might as well just tell him.  The same goes for Alistair, and likely Aedan too."  He nodded thoughtfully, and finally whistled, loudly, and Tomas sauntered back up.  He suggested that Theron go sit by the stream, pointing off a little ways north, and then settled down onto his haunches, watching me as we waited for Theron to walk away.  I'm not getting any better at remembering their names correctly.  Yay me!

 I spoke first.

 "I want to thank you."  Tomas just silently raised his eyebrows, so I continued.  "I know who I need to have trust me if I'm going to get through this.  I can't fight, I can't take care of myself, and I haven't earned your trust…yet.  I have no friends, no family, and no reliable way home.  I am grateful that you are allowing me to attempt to prove myself.  I know that if you thought I was a threat, you'd have killed me the moment your eyes opened.  So...thanks."  He nodded, looking thoughtful.  "Anyways.  Go ahead and test me."

 "Tell me about Alistair."

 "Ah, Alistair.  Let me see.  Ex-templar-in-training.  Bastard son of Maric, via an elven Grey Warden named Fiona.  Raised by Eamon, told his mother was a serving woman in Redcliffe Castle.  Treated abominably by Isolde, and finally sent to the Chantry as a child when she wouldn't put up with the rumour mill anymore.  Rescued by you, requiring the Right of Conscription, before he took his vows and became addicted to Lyrium."  Duncan kept the mask on the entire time I spoke, but I saw his eye twitch when I mentioned Fiona.  Haha, thank you David Gaider.  "Does Cailan know about him?"  Duncan twitched his head, a look I interpreted to mean he had no idea.

 "He has a minor obsession with his hair, which would appear to be hereditary," I grinned, and Duncan nodded, "an unholy obsession with cheese, thinks swooping is bad, uses jokes to avoid discussing virtually anything personal, and has a tendency to make both mages and Revered Mothers want to rip out their hair in aggravation.  He has an overwhelming need to do what is right, no matter the cost, a sense of duty I wish was more common, both in Ferelden and in my world, and yet somehow remains a sweet, somewhat naive, optimist.  He makes a much better King than Cailan ever could, despite never ever wanting to be one.  Oh, and he's a virgin.  Did I miss anything?"  Duncan levelled that speculative gaze at me again, and I suddenly realised I must have sounded like an obsessive stalker.  God help me, it's pretty much what I am, isn't it?

 "You may have missed handsome and charismatic.  But otherwise, no, I'd say you got it all in one."  He smirked as I blushed and hid my face in my hands.  Giving me a moment to recover, he started again.  "Tell me about Aedan."

 "I actually know less about Aedan than you would think, because for the performance, you're sort of...looking through his eyes, in a way.  So he doesn't really describe himself or give away his personality much.  But...well, he's the youngest son of Teyrn Bryce Cousland.  He grew up in Highever Castle, training with his brother Fergus in combat, although the Teyrn hoped he'd be more inclined to learn about ruling than fighting.  He has a mabari, who drives Nan nuts.  Mother Mallol ran the chapel, and a scholar named Aldous was his tutor.  On the day you met, Arl Howe was in Highever, and claimed his troops were delayed.  You were there to look into recruiting Ser Gilmore, or possibly Aedan himself.  The Teyrn sent Fergus to Ostagar with most of his men, planning to follow the next day once Howe's troops arrived.  That night, Howe attacked, killing Fergus' wife Orianna, his son Oren, and virtually every other inhabitant of the castle.  Eleanor Cousland and Aedan fought their way through the castle, finally finding the Teyrn fatally wounded.  In the end, Bryce pledged Aedan to the Grey Wardens in return for your assurances that you would help Aedan escape, and bring word to Cailan about what had happened.  And Eleanor stayed behind to protect your escape."  Duncan nodded, seeming satisfied.

 "And how did he become a Grey Warden?"

 "The joining.  I don't really know the details of the ritual - it was sort of hazy, but Aedan, Alistair, Jory, and Daveth went into the Wilds to collect Darkspawn blood for the ritual.  It was actually their trail of corpses I followed to find Ostagar.  Anyway, they were also to collect some old Grey Warden treaties that had been abandoned in a ruin in the Wilds.  They ran into Morrigan and Flemeth, who actually had the treaties in her possession." 

 Duncan sputtered, interrupting me.  "Flemeth?  The Flemeth?"

 "Yep.  Witch of the Wilds.  The one and only.  Oh, and Alistair likely called her daughter a sneaky Witch thief.  You should be grateful he's not a toad right now."  Duncan groaned, and I laughed.  "It's actually Flemeth who saved them after they lit the beacon at the Tower of Ishal, as well.  Anyway.  Where was I?  Oh yes.  So there's some sort of ritual where they drink darkspawn blood with a little bit of Archdemon blood mixed in.  Daveth went first, and died.  Then Jory pulled his sword and you killed him.  And then Aedan drank, and lived."

 "And what do you know about me?"  I had to think.  What did I know about him?

 "Well, you killed a Grey Warden, and were about to be executed, when you were conscripted, by your victim’s betrothed, no less.  You're now the Commander of the Grey in Ferelden.  And you realised, not so long ago, that your Calling has begun.  Alistair thinks the world of you, as do the Dwarves, the Dalish, the Alienage elves, and Cailan.  The templars and the Chantry don't trust you, because sometimes you recruit apostates, and take Circle mages from their control, and they don't like that very much.  And you stole their templar-in-training.  Other than that?  Not a lot.  In the performance...you died, early on.

 "So, before you ask, let me volunteer a few other fun facts.  Grey Wardens can sense darkspawn.  Unfortunately, the darkspawn can sense them in turn.  They have nightmares about the Archdemon, which are, unsurprisingly, worse during a Blight.  They eat more than any person has a right to, they're all but infertile, and their lifespan is shortened to approximately 30 years from whenever they joined.  After roughly three decades of being a Warden, they get the Calling.  If they don't do something about it, they start to become darkspawn, or ghouls, or something.  So instead they go down to the Deep Roads alone and try to get dead before the Taint takes over.  Unfortunately, some of them don't get dead.  They turn.  Especially those that run into the Architect.  And the females...they get turned into Brood Mothers.  Weisshaupt has tried, with some success, to hide these facts from the rest of the Grey Wardens.

 "To add to the fun, a Grey Warden is the only one who can kill the Archdemon.  And the reason for that is that the Archdemon's essence, or soul, or whatever, will live on and inhabit a new darkspawn body, unless there's a Grey Warden making the killing blow.  If a Warden kills it, the soul instead tries to inhabit the Warden, and...voila.  Mutual annihilation."

 "Voila?  You speak Orlesian?"

 "Uh, bits and pieces.  It's very similar to a language in my world.  I learned a bit as a kid.  I don't use it much though, so I'm not exactly fluent.  I'd like to just add, on a personal note: shame you for not telling Alistair about the whole Archdemon thing.  I understand why you haven't told Aedan yet...but do you realise that you just about left the fate of Ferelden in the hands of two men who had no idea that one of them would die when they faced the Archdemon?"  He had the decency to look a little guilty.  "You need to tell them, Tomas.  As soon as possible.  I know you want to shelter Alistair from that, and especially from taking the killing blow on the Archdemon, but he deserves to know.  You have to stop coddling him, and treat him like a Grey Warden."  Tomas nodded, looking resigned. 

 "Anyways.  Um...There's a Grey Warden storage sort of place behind a hidden door in a warehouse in Denerim's Market District.  Somehow Loghain found out about it, and while he left most of the stuff there, he stole the last of the Archdemon blood.  So until he is dealt with, you can't create any more Grey Wardens.

 "Oh...and Riordan, an Orlesian Grey Warden, is currently in the dungeon of the Arl of Denerim's estate in Denerim.  Or maybe he's about to be there...I admit that the timing of some of these events is a little confusing.  In the performance, they skip pesky details like weeks of walking between destinations, so I don't know exactly when all these events occur."

 "Pesky?"

 "Oh.  Right.  Um...something between irritating and unimportant for the purpose at hand.  I suppose."

 "Travel times are pesky?"

"Well...okay, if you went to see a theatre performance, where part of a story was a journey from, say, Val Royeaux to Denerim, would you want to watch every minute of people just walking along, peacefully, and then making camp, and eating food, and sleeping, and then more walking?  They just...skip ahead to the interesting bits." 

 Tomas chuckled.  "So.  Last question.  You're here.  As you've said, as far as you know you may just be dreaming.  None of this may be real.  You may be pulled back home, you may be stuck here.  But, assuming that you do stay, what do you intend?"

 "Well, I don't intend any harm to come to Ferelden, or the King, or the Grey Wardens.  I suppose that's the first place to start.  If I could, I'd...well, I suppose I'd try to end the Blight.  I'd try to put Cailan back on his throne, so Alistair doesn't have to do it.  So I guess I intend to aid those efforts, if I can.  All I can offer is information, but I will give that freely to you, or Alistair, or Aedan.  Or, I suppose, Cailan, if all else fails."

 "You could always have run.  I wonder, then, why you didn't?" 

 I nodded.  It was a logical question.  "I suppose...well, a couple of reasons.  One is that really, where could I run to?  If the Blight isn't ended, there won't be anywhere safe to go.  Another is that I'm not even sure I have the choice - I mean, ending up on a farm near Ostagar just in time to see a darkspawn attack?  Or in the Korcari Wilds, on the very day of battle?  I'm not completely sure that if I go somewhere else, try to flee, that I won't just get yanked out of this world and then dropped back wherever this magic...thing...feels I should be.  I could try to run only to end up right back in the middle of it all.

 "And, I mean...you've seen that I admire Alistair's sense of right and wrong, of duty.  Knowing what I know, knowing that if I act, do something, I can spare suffering, save lives, end the Blight sooner, prevent civil war... if I know that, and this is real, and I don't even try...what does that make me?"

 I looked up to see an expression on Duncan's (and at that moment, I couldn't see him as anyone other than Duncan) face that I assumed was something like what Alistair or Aedan must have seen when they woke after their Joining rituals.  Pride.  He reached out and squeezed my hand, briefly, and I blushed.  One day, I'm just going to stay this colour

 He whistled and Theron came back, crashing through the undergrowth in the darkness.

 "I think that soon, we should all get some sleep, but I wondered if you'd indulge me in just a few more questions, Sierra."

 "Of course, Tomas.  Hit me."

 "Hit...?"

 "Uh.  Oh.  It's a saying meaning...please go ahead and ask your questions."

 "I'm not even going to ask how that could possibly be...nevermind.  So.  You mentioned before that Alistair and Aedan are going to be heading to Lothering."

 "With Morrigan.  Yes."

 "Morrigan?  The witch?"

 "Yep.  Flemeth sends her with the boys.  She's a bit...unsociable.  But quite useful, overall."

 "Um.  Okay, so...Lothering?"

 "Right.  Well, neither Alistair nor Aedan know the best routes out of the Wilds, and Morrigan knows how to get to Lothering.  So she takes them there.  It will be absolutely overflowing with refugees, but if we hang out near the Chantry we will probably find them."  Tomas and Theron mouthed the words 'hang out' at each other, and I blushed.  "Alternatively, we can find Leliana, an Orlesian Chantry sister.  She will manage to track them down without trouble."

 "When?"

 "Well, like I said.  I don't exactly know.  I know that both Alistair and Aedan are injured, and Flemeth has to heal them.  And they should have a longer walk to get to Lothering than we do since they will be starting south of Ostagar in the Wilds.  I think.  I imagine we'll have a least a day, maybe more, before they catch up to us."  They considered that briefly.  "Can I ask a practical question?"  Both men nodded.

 "Well, I don't mean to be nosey, but...do we have any money?  I mean, uh, coin?"  Tomas admitted to having a small collection of silver, but Theron interrupted.

 "We don't need coin.  I can requisition what I need in town, and give them a token to claim what they are owed from the Royal Treasury."  I stared, open-mouthed, at the stupid, naive, arrogant...Fortunately Tomas cut in before I had the chance to say any of what I was thinking.

 "Cailan, the King of Ferelden, most certainly can do those things.  But Theron, the non-descript refugee from Blight-infested areas to the south absolutely cannot.  First of all, they'd never believe you, as you are; second, do you really want to give Loghain the opportunity to try to have you killed again?  This alias, this bluff, it is necessary.  It is the only way to keep you safe.  Until we can tell all of Ferelden what happened, you need to be anonymous.  And third - if this town is as overflowing with refugees as Sierra says, there won't be anything for you to requisition anyway.  We're going to have to hope we can buy whatever supplies we need.  So.  Do you?  Have any coin?"  Theron flushed, initially looking irritated, but more chagrined by the end.  He shook his head.

 "I wonder if these are any good here?"  I fished in my pockets some more, coming out with a decent handful of change.  I put the paper money aside - useless - and was left with some pennies, dimes, quarters, and even a couple of loonies and toonies, one- and two-dollar coins.  Tomas examined them, amazed at the clear imprinting on the coins, studying them intently.

 He pointed at the pennies, thinking they'd be good for maybe a 25 copper piece.  The dimes he figured would be worth five or ten silver each, the quarters more like 25 silver.  The loonies he thought we might be able to use as sovereigns, but he wasn't sure.  The toonies he was fascinated by, but felt no one would accept as currency.  I recalled hearing that if you froze them, you could break toonies so the inner golden-coloured disk separated from the outer silver disk, but I had no good way of freezing them.  I put the toonies back in my pocket, and told Tomas to add the rest of my change to his purse.  If the loonies would indeed pass, I had handed over about five sovereigns, a small fortune.  I made a mental note to bring more small change if I ended up back at home again.

 I thought about how we could approach Lothering as I settled down on the ground to sleep.  I automatically chose the opposite side of the fire from where Theron reclined.  Theron gave me an odd smile, from the other side of the fire, which felt decidedly...weird.  I ignored it, choosing to put my back to him and trying to relax.  Tomas had claimed he would keep watch, and was sitting on a rock a little apart from the fire.  I wasn't cold, but I certainly wasn't comfortable, and I shifted around for a while looking for a better position.  After a few minutes, I heard Theron start to snore softly.  Somehow the sound was so...homey, I finally closed my own eyes and drifted off.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six: Preparations

 I woke, at home, stiff and sore in my own bed.  I was surprised to find that I was dry, no indication that I had soiled myself while unconscious.  And my pockets were largely empty, so most of the things I left in the pack must still be there.  Good to know.  My bladder did feel full, but not painfully so, and I rolled out of the bed and stumbled into the bathroom to deal with some personal issues.  Afterwards, I stood, turning to the mirror to wash my hands, and gasped as I glanced up at myself.

 My hair was hanging off my head, dirty and tangled.  My hands and face were filthy, covered in mud, and what must apparently have been darkspawn blood was spattered across my hands and my face.  There were tear tracks apparent, leftover from my brief breakdown at camp, the only spots on my face that looked clean.  I had never been so disgusting in my life.

 I stripped bare, immediately hopping into a long, hot shower.  I scrubbed until my skin was pink, washed my hair multiple times and put conditioner in, then just stood under the hot spray until the water started to run cold.  Magic may be amazing, but nothing beats a hot shower.  I dressed myself again in warm clothes, tied my hair back with an elastic, and started a pile of items to stow in my pockets before I passed out again.  The first thing I added to the pile was a large bar of soap and a toothbrush.  While digging through my cupboards, I made a fortuitous find - a sample package that must have come in the mail or something, with a man's razor.  I added a small pair of hairdressing scissors.  I dug through my purse and added all the coins I thought would be of value.  And another clean pair of underpants.  You can't have too many clean underpants.

 I flipped on the TV as I passed by, confirming that I had indeed been gone for two days.  I was surprised to notice that I wasn't especially hungry or thirsty, but I ate and drank anyway.  I brought in my mail, paid my bills, and put in a load of laundry, including my jeans and coat. 

 I turned on my computer, checking my email - still no job offers.  Stupid economy.  Though with all this blacking out, I couldn't really afford to be working anyway.  I decided to spend a bit of time researching coins.  My modern ones were all fine, but the minute someone realised they weren't really silver or copper we would be in trouble, and I didn't want to draw any attention to ourselves with strange money.  It was frustrating trying to find anything online, as they all wanted to advertise rare, expensive coins.  Finally I picked through the phone book and found a local coin dealer.  I called the store, and actually got a person on the phone.  Impressive.  I hit on an inspiration, and told him that I was hosting a role playing event and wanted things to be 'authentic' but inexpensive.  I was looking for copper or silver coins which would look old, but without actually costing me much money.  We talked for a bit, and it turned out he had a lot of old Roman and British coin, which wasn't nice enough to be rare, but still looked medieval.  He told me lots of it wasn't even legible, and I practically chortled - I didn't look forward to answering questions about who King or Queen or Emperor whoever was in Ferelden anyway.  He asked if I wanted it cleaned, what sizes of coin I wanted, and eventually he agreed to box up a large assortment of random copper and silver, basically worthless coin and ship it to me for a couple hundred bucks.  I paid over the phone by credit card.  Score!  I figured I could bring it over a few handfuls at a time. 

 I also ordered a few more Swiss army knives.  I wanted to give Cailan one of his own, and that went double for Alistair.

 Finished with gathering all the things I thought I might need, I stuffed my pockets, put on my coat, laced on my heavy hiking boots, and decided that I was ready for whenever the next blackout hit.  To my surprise, for the first time, I think I was even looking forward to it. 

 And so, I waited.  And waited.

 I stressed about how I would find Duncan and Cailan again.  I wondered what they thought of my sudden disappearance.  I thought about what we would find in Lothering.  I worried about what I'd do the next time I ended up in combat.  I briefly considered signing up for self-defense classes, or fencing or something, but figured I'd just end up passing out and getting stabbed by mistake.

 The more I thought about Lothering, the more I worried that my clothes were going to be a problem.  I needed them to feel prepared in any way, or else I needed to find armour or something, but they were going to draw a lot of attention.  No one in Ferelden wears jeans, but there was no way I was wandering around there in a dress, barefoot.  I started doing yet more internet research, and found myself staring at Halloween costumes.  Perhaps, if I found some sort of over-sized dress that would cover everything, I could blend better.  And I needed to find a cloak.  Frustrated with trying to figure it out online, I eventually dared to call a cab and venture out to find a custom tailor to sew the garments I needed.

 I used the same line about doing a role-playing event, and needing to wear warm clothing underneath a dress but still have it look passable, at least at a distance.  The dressmaker seemed to think she could pull something off, and showed me a couple of quick sketches of a simple yet elegant looking dress.  She took down my measurements, promising to call me when it was done.  I paid a fifty dollar deposit, agreeing to pay extra if the dress and cloak could be available within a couple of days, but warned her that I might be 'out of town' unexpectedly so she'd need to leave a message.

 I made it back to my house without blacking out, relieved.  After supper, I spent the rest of the evening reading the Dragon Age wiki trying to determine the timeline of events such as Eamon's poisoning, Riordan's capture, Zevran's ambush, and Uldred's attempted coup at the Circle Tower.  I was unsuccessful and finally give up in a huff.  Between unknown travel times and no forced order in which you experience the events, it just didn't seem possible.  I did notice that nothing about the wiki indicated my adventures had any effect on the game.  It still cited Duncan and Cailan as having died at Ostagar.  I finally climbed into bed, anxious and overly warm, and fell asleep.

 The next day I woke still at home, so after working on finding a job for a while, I found myself at a loss.  Somehow playing Dragon Age again, or reading the books by David Gaider, just seemed...wrong, knowing that it was actually real, but nothing else appealed to me either.  It occurred to me, as I thought about the books, that I actually didn't live all that far from where BioWare and David Gaider were located.  I spent the rest of the day, after eating, drinking, showering, and other basic necessities, cyber-stalking David Gaider.  I read every interview I could find, hoping to get a glimmer of how he developed the story, how he invented Ferelden.  Everything I could find was vague and pointed to a collaborative project between writers and game designers, but I had a hard time believing that was true.  He wrote the books.  Somehow, some way, he knew more about Ferelden.  He'd been there, even if in dreams.

 I contemplated going to Edmonton one day and trying to track him down, but didn't get very far along that thought process.  Every time I tried to picture it in my head, I ended up locked in a psych ward, or in jail for being a stalker.  I put it out of my mind and watched boring television until I finally managed to fall asleep.

 The next morning my box of coins arrived.  I spent a little while sorting through them, replacing the modern ones in my pockets with useable copper and silver coins.  Shortly after, the phone rang, and the tailor informed me my dress was ready.  Calling another cab, I went in for a fitting and found a rather perfect, thick, green, floor-length fake velvet gown.  It fit over my clothes, and while it made the sleeves look a bit rumpled, it actually worked pretty well.  Unless someone came quite close, I would look like a chubby noblewoman.  I think.  Not that I'd seen any noblewomen to compare, but it was better than wandering around in jeans.

 The cloak was even better.  Long and thick, it had a deep hood, and looked perfect over the dress.  Although I was roasting indoors, I thought I might just appreciate the warmth if I was going to try to wander all over Ferelden.  I paid the tailor, only half-listening as she told me she was giving me a discount.  Apparently she had been contemplating closing her doors for lack of business, but my dress and cloak had inspired her to wait and try to break into making authentic costumes, whether for Halloween or for Renaissance fairs and the like.  I appreciated the discount, either way, and wished her well.  I think she was surprised that I wore the dress out of the store, but I figured it was worth it if I managed to black out on the way home.

 Lucky for me, and somehow it felt like fate, I made it through the door and dropped my keys just in time to feel the world spin.  I dropped onto my bed again and let the blackness take me.

 ********

 I woke with a start.  I was lying on the ground, and someone was shaking me.

 "My lady!  Sierra!  Please.  You must get up."  I looked up blearily and saw a worried face hovering over me.

 "Dun...Tomas?  What is it?"  I sat up, my head still slightly spinning.

 "Darkspawn coming.  I can feel them."

 "Why is my timing always so terrible?"  I took his hand and allowed myself to be pulled up.  I looked down, briefly appreciating my cloak and dress briefly before realising that I really could not afford to have them covered in blood.  If we survived.  Shut up.  Tomas' mouth gaped open as I dropped the cloak, reached down to grab the hem of the dress and pull it over my head - I had the foresight to avoid buttons, and had the neck made elastic - and quickly rolled both dress and cloak into a small bundle.  Tomas finally shook his head and handed me the pack to stuff my things into, as well as the sword I'd scavenged in Ostagar and my dagger.  I threw the pack's strap over my shoulder - better that those who knew how to fight remain unencumbered. 

 I saw Theron standing nearby, sword and shield at the ready.  He grinned at me - the maniac actually looks happy about this! - and returned to looking around expectantly. We waited only a few moments before Tomas pointed.  A genlock archer and a hurlock were coming up around the bend.  The men pushed me to stand behind them, moving forward shoulder to shoulder, weapons at the ready.  When the hurlock paused, Theron let out a booming battle shout, and rushed at the archer as he raised his bow.  Tomas leaped towards the hurlock, catching a wicked slash of a crude sword on his crossed blades, before jumping back and slashing at the creature's abdomen.  Theron batted away a poorly aimed arrow with his shield, rushing the archer and knocking him down.  I lost track of the fight for a bit after that, glancing between both men, feeling helpless and slightly foolish standing twenty feet behind them holding a sword which I had no idea how to use.

 I realised both creatures were down, when Tomas spun, a look of horror on his face.  He shouted, but I didn't hear it - I suddenly knew exactly what that expression meant.  There were darkspawn behind me.  I hope they find someone who can use that dress.  I gave Tomas and Theron one last look, and turned, raising my sword in front of me.  If I was going to die, I'd at least go down flailing about ineffectually.

 There were three hurlocks charging towards me, and they were close enough that there was absolutely no way for either man behind me to get there in time.  I tightened my grip on the sword, holding it out away from me; a scream died on my lips as one after the other, the darkspawn completely ignored me.  They flowed around me, barely stepping to the sides to avoid me, my hair whipped into my face from the sudden wind of their passing.  Not one slowed to cut me down as they ran.  I spun back around just in time to hear the clash of metal against metal as the creatures engaged my new companions.  I stared in shock for just a moment before dashing forward and thrusting my sword into the back of a hurlock raising his axe to carve into Tomas.  It turned, its corrupted face registering surprise, and slowly fell.  I let go of my sword, and managed to step out of the spray of blood before I got any on me.  There was a crash as he collapsed to the ground, followed by a sudden deafening silence. 

 The three of us stood, panting, staring back and forth at each other, then down at the five corpses on the ground.  Suddenly I lurched sideways, leaning over, and retched into a small blackening shrub at my feet.  I felt a hand rest on my back, but wiped my mouth cautiously before turning to see Theron looking at me in concern.  He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and lead me back to the small camp where he and Tomas had obviously slept, assisting me as I slid to the ground, settling beside me with his arm still around me.

 "Are you alright?"

 "I think so.  Everything but my pride, at any rate.  And my formerly clean pan...small clothes."

 Theron barked a laugh.  “At least you can still joke about it!”

 “What makes you think I’m joking?” I grumbled, but I shot Theron a small smile.

 Tomas crouched in front of me, his look speculative.  "The darkspawn ignored you."

 "So I didn't just imagine that?"  He shook his head, his slight smile never reaching his eyes.

 "It was like they didn't know you were there."

 "I'm not complaining.  I have absolutely no idea why I'm alive right now."  He studied my face, finally relenting and leaning back to sit.

 "The darkspawn are all gone. I believe we are safe, for the moment.  And it appears I owe you my thanks, again.  You may not be a fighter at home, but overall I'd say you're managing quite well here."

 I blushed, still reeling in shock.  I lifted my hand and gave myself a pinch on the thigh, hard, through the denim of my jeans.  I flinched in pain.  I certainly felt real.

 "What was that about?"  Theron looked amused.

 "Something I learned as a kid.  If you think you might be dreaming, and you pinch yourself, you'll wake up.  It would seem I've lost my mind, because dreaming just can't explain all of...this."  I curled my legs in front of me, wrapped both arms around them, and lowered my head onto my knees.  "I think I'll just shake for a while, if you don't mind."

 Both men were quiet while I collected myself again.  I may have been bored at home, but this world was...perhaps a little too exciting.  I briefly prayed for a happy medium.  I finally raised my head again.

 "So...how long was I gone?" 

 Tomas had stood up and started pacing nearby, head down in thought.  Theron still rubbed my back.  "Two days.  Duncan…I mean Tomas, was so angry when he came back to camp and discovered you missing.  He spent half a day looking for a trail before finally admitting that you must have disappeared into thin air.  We stayed there for a bit, wondering if you'd show up again, but finally decided to keep moving, slowly, and hope you'd find us if you came back."

 "And I did."

 "Did you ever.  I just about screamed like a little girl when I woke and saw you lying there.  Would have completely ruined my kingly image, though, so I held it in.  Tomas had a few interesting curse words when he came back from watch and found you asleep.  I swear he thinks you're doing it on purpose just to make him crazy." 

 I laughed, shakily, the tension slowly leaking out of my shoulders as I relaxed.  It was almost like...almost like talking to Alistair at the party camp in the game.  I wondered what other similarities the brothers shared, and then blushed furiously as my mind followed that thought a bit too far.

 "I'm sorry I startled you."

 "Thank you for not saying 'scared'."  We both laughed, and I finally jumped to my feet, walking over to Tomas.

 "May I ask what you were doing for the last couple of days, my Lady?" 

 I sighed.  "Sierra, remember?  Not a lady.  Just ask my last foster mother.  Anyway, I got cleaned up, got a dress made, got some coin that might actually be useable here, and tried to find out if I had any way to nail down the timeline more specifically.  Which I don't."  I handed Tomas a couple of handfuls of coin, and he nodded appreciatively before hiding it away in a pouch he pulled from somewhere.  The guy reminds me of descriptions of Zevran.  Pockets and hiding places everywhere.  I also showed him the razor.  He grimaced.

 "I noticed the dress.  You wear it over the rest of your..." Tomas looked down at my boots, jeans, and jacket strangely.  "...outfit?"

 "I figured that I'd be sort of noticeable, dressed like this.  You both said I act like a noble, so I got a dress that I thought perhaps a noblewoman might wear.  But if you think I'm wandering around here with just a dress on, you've got another thing coming.  So I made sure the dress would fit over my clothes." 

 "I must apologise, Sierra.  I keep confusing absence of experience for absence of intelligence.  I'm quite impressed.  The dress will draw some attention, especially away from the busier towns, but less than that costume." 

 I giggled.  I couldn't help it.  He thinks my jeans are the costume.  I took a deep breath.  "So...what now?"

 "We are likely about a day's walk from Lothering.  I thought perhaps we could walk rather slowly, and hope the others will catch up to us on the road.  If you don't object, I thought I'd get you to tell us a little bit more about this...performance you told us about.  And at camp tonight...maybe we can talk about how to use this a little bit."  He handed me back my sword, after wiping it off on the grass carefully.  I took it, squaring my shoulders, and started walking.

 ********

 "That bastard!"  Swore Theron, as we walked together towards Lothering.  "He uses an apostate blood mage to poison Eamon?  I'll have his head.  I'll cut it off myself."  He continued ranting, pulling slightly ahead, and Tomas and I shared bemused looks.  Listening to what was happening to Ferelden after the King's supposed death was really getting to him, and so far I'd only described Redcliffe.  I hoped that maybe hearing about it would help him mature a bit.  Between the game's portrayal and his behaviour since we'd met, I had decided that perhaps the King needed to Grow Up before being allowed to rule a country.  And maybe he'd finally listen to reason about needing an heir.  I had no interest in keeping Anora on the throne for my own reasons, but regardless of his feelings or mine, the fact was that Ferelden needed a Royal Baby, and fast.

 And the truth was, as we walked, I could feel Theron's interest in me intensifying, and I suddenly wondered if he thought I'd be a suitable mother for said baby.  He kept touching me, innocently on the shoulder or hand, when he made a joke or to get my attention to show me something, and every time I saw Tomas watching, his concerned expression suddenly covered by that indifferent mask he used to hide his thoughts.  It wasn't normal for people to touch this much in Ferelden, I was quite certain.  Especially not if those people were the very married King and an unknown, possibly insane resident of somewhere other than Thedas.  And truly, while he seemed like a nice guy overall, he was also arrogant, egotistical, unrealistic, and immature, and I certainly didn't return his level of interest.  I had no desire to be the King's mistress, or God forbid, the Queen, even if I did somehow manage to stay in Ferelden forever.  I'd never been in such an awkward situation before.  Back at home I was considered unattractive.  Fighting off interested males wasn't part of my repertoire.

 I contemplated Tomas for a minute.  He certainly had never indicated any interest in me as a woman, and as I thought about it, nothing in the game or the books indicated he'd ever had any interest in women in general.  In fact, wasn't Tomas practically the only one not getting laid in 'The Calling' when he was in the Deep Roads with Maric?  I worried about the plan that formed in my head a bit, but frankly I worried about Theron more.  I took a deep breath and strode over to take Tomas' arm, forcing him to shorten his stride a little bit or pull away rudely.  His eyes narrowed as he looked down at me, and I caught his gaze, deliberately glancing over at Theron, then back to where my arm wrapped around his, before searching his face again.  He followed my gaze, then - as he met my eyes again - comprehension and something that looked like approval flashed across his face.  He patted my fingers, and allowed me to continue to walk with him while Theron stomped along in front of us.

 Not long after, we found a decent campsite and another convenient stream, and decided to stop for the night.  I washed my hands and face with the soap in the stream, gasping as the cold water trickled down my neck.  Tomas, watching me, reached over to touch one of the drops as it fell, and I smiled up at him and took his hand to climb back to my feet.  I made another small fire, lighting it with ease using the Zippo, and Tomas again stepped out to 'scout'.  I figured he'd be back with another small animal of some sort, so I set Theron to gathering wood while I fashioned a spit as I'd seen Tomas do before.

 I was right, and Tomas returned with two small birds dangling from a rope.  I assumed they were something like pheasant, and supposed that as long as someone else plucked them, I might even be able to eat them.  Tomas indeed did the plucking when he saw me pale a little bit when he offered them to me, and I was able to set them up over the fire once he was done.  He smiled his thanks and I grinned in return.  I caught an irritated look on Theron's face as he watched us, and I suppressed a laugh.  When you're pretty, boys are so easy!

 Theron settled by the fire, but Tomas hauled me to my feet once more and handed me my sword.  Standing in front of me, he started telling me where to put my feet if I wanted to hit something with said weapon.  He demonstrated and I tried to copy him, and I started to realise that when not surging with adrenaline, swords are heavy.  Clearly I was going to need more upper body strength.  Joy.  I distracted myself, thinking about that for a moment, and Tomas swept his foot out in an arc that caught my ankle and tumbled me to the ground.  I landed on my ass, unhurt, my sword flying out of my hand to tumble across the grass.  I swore at him, but he helped me up and lectured me a bit on paying attention to my surroundings, my feet, and my opponent.  Embarrassed, I picked up the heavy blade, and tried again.  We didn't spar or even practice swinging the weapons we held; we just held them up, and slowly moved around, me learning how to step carefully on uneven ground without looking down, him trying to trip me at every opportunity.  By the time the fowl was cooked, I was bruised, sore, and exhausted.  Both Tomas and Theron laughed at me as I gingerly eased down onto an uninjured part of my butt.

 "I hate you both.  You know that, right?"

 "You're actually doing quite well for an adult who's never trained before, Sierra.  I know I'm being mean, but unfortunately, it's the only way for you to learn how to split your attention between your environment and your opponent.  I'm impressed you managed to avoid being knocked over at all.  We will make a fighter out of you yet."  He smiled at me, and I wondered if this look was genuine or just part of the farce I knew he'd agreed to for Theron's sake.  I blushed and smiled back, for once thanking my pasty complexion for its easy pinkness.  Theron tried to cover another dirty look with a yawn.

 Tomas stripped the meat off the bones of the birds, sharing it out between us.  I insisted he and Theron take a larger share, since they'd be doing most of the fighting, and I knew Tomas' metabolism was going to leave him hungry no matter what.  If I closed my eyes, it tasted just like roast chicken, and it was delicious. 

 Tomas informed us he'd take watch overnight, but I shook my head.

 "When did you last sleep, Tomas?"  I'd certainly noted the dark smudges under his eyes.

 "Um..."

 "Let me guess.  Ostagar?"  He nodded sheepishly.  "You need some rest.  Let me take the watch."

 "And how will you sense darkspawn?"

 "Well, let me see.  Do you sense any now?"  He shook his head.  "And I'm assuming they can't just creep close enough to kill us in a few minutes?  How far away do they have to be for you not to feel them?"

 "A couple of hours, at least." 

 "Alright, well, then I'll watch for a couple of hours.  Then I promise to wake you, and if you don't sense anything, you can go back to sleep again."

 "And if you disappear in the middle of the night again?"  Hmm.  Damn.  Oh wait -

 "What if I hold your arm up, like this.  Will you be able to sleep?"  I held his arm up a bit.  He nodded.  "Well, then, if I disappear, your arm will fall, and you'll wake up."  He looked at me intently, and I met his gaze with all the stubbornness I'd picked up in the foster system.  He finally nodded.

 "Are you sure?"

 "Yep.  Besides, honestly, with how sore my butt is, I won't be able to sleep anyway.  I might as well do something useful if I'm going to be awake regardless."

 Theron laughed.  "What's a butt?"

 "Oh, uh...you know.  Behind.  Rear quarters.  Ass.  Whatever you wanna call it."  My face was scarlet, and both Theron and Tomas laughed.  Tomas showed me how to tell the passage of time by the moon, and I agreed to wake him once it touched a certain tree branch.

 Both men settled down to sleep near the fire.  I propped Tomas' arm up on my lap, facing out from the fire to have some sort of night vision.  It left me sitting practically in his embrace, and I felt almost as awkward as when I woke in Cailan's lap.  I sighed, and felt Tomas squeeze my hand once, gently, as if he knew what I was thinking.  I tried to be quiet and still, and soon heard two sets of soft snores.

 Sitting watch, it turned out, is incredibly boring, if nothing happens.  At first my frantic thoughts kept me alert enough, as did the warm body curled around me on the ground.  But after a while, I had to stop thinking or else go mad, and I guess I got used to the warmth of Tomas' body.  I stared up at the night sky, trying to pick out constellations.  My familiar ones, Cassiopeia, Orion, and the Big Dipper, were nowhere to be found.  I spent some time imagining other things in the shapes of the stars, but I'd never really been much of a visual person.

 I woke Tomas at the appointed time.  He didn't sense any darkspawn, so after I crept into the bushes to relieve myself, we settled into the same position again.

 My ass really did hurt, and I spent a while simply concentrating on holding still despite the pain, then a while longer contemplating the posture and footwork I'd been learning before supper.  I'd never been graceful growing up, and while this body seemed better balanced than mine at home, I still didn't feel very light on my feet.  If I was honest, I also really didn't want to be learning how to swing a sword.  I wasn't a fighter, never even considered military service; most of the time someone having a nose bleed made me nauseous.  I didn't really want to stab things with the pointy end of any sort of weapon.  I suddenly really, really missed my safe office, my reliable desk and my meagre view from a tiny window at my former employer's place of business.  An unemployed business consultant has no place in the middle of a Blight in bloody Ferelden!

 By the time the first light of dawn was in the sky, I found myself drifting off, my head sagging down to my chest then springing back up hurriedly.  I unzipped my jacket to see if the cold would help, I pinched myself repeatedly, but I couldn't stay awake any longer despite all the discomfort.  The next time my head bobbed, I dropped Tomas' arm.  He startled awake, and I apologised.  Seeing me struggle to keep my eyes open, he took over watch.  He told me it was rare he slept more than four hours in a night, so he assured me he felt rested.  He crept a bit further away, and I tried to lie down and sleep.  Once I was actually allowed, however, sleep wouldn't come.

 Every time I closed my eyes, all I could see was the surprised look on the hurlock's face as I stabbed it, and I startled myself awake again.  Finally, seeing me twitch for the twentieth time, Tomas moved back closer to me, sitting so I could feel his warmth against my back, and squeezed my hand.  It worked, and I fell fast asleep before he could even let go.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven: Unintended Consequences

 

When I woke, that comforting presence was gone, and I wondered if I would be at home when I opened my eyes, but then I heard low voices, Tomas and Theron whispering in anger.  I couldn't hear what they said, until Theron hissed the word "fine", and then I heard him storm off, stomping and muttering under his breath.  I waited until I couldn't hear him anymore, preparing to get up, but then I heard Tomas chuckle close behind me. 

 "You can open your eyes now, Sierra.  He's gone." 

 I sat up, rubbing sleep from my eyes, and smiled at Tomas ruefully.  "Was that about me?  I hope that I haven't stirred up any trouble, Tomas."

 "Yes, I'm afraid it was about you.  And don't worry, I will manage Theron.  I admit that I'm relieved that you have so much common sense, Sierra."

 "It doesn't take much common sense to realise that I don't want to be a mistress, can't be his wife, and that I would never survive the political shitstorm of trying to be either one.  I don't exactly relish the idea of mothering the royal bastard, either."

 "I think you'd be surprised, my lady," he replied drily, and we both smirked, "at exactly how many women, even among the nobility, would give their entire family fortune for the opportunity to try.  However, I also suspect that it makes it easier to turn down the charming, handsome King of Ferelden when one's heart is...already spoken for.  Yes?"

 I looked away, not wanting to meet his eyes, frantically trying to think up convincing ways to deny it.  Why did I have to be so damned keen to show off my knowledge of Alistair?  He brushed my hair out of my face, and I couldn't help but look at him.  He was smiling down at me kindly, and didn't appear to be angry or offended.  I felt my face crumple, and finally just nodded.  I was entirely aware of how inappropriate my feelings were for a man I'd not even met yet, and how bad an idea it would be for me to even try to begin that relationship.  Tomas watched the emotions pass across my face.  He leaned forward, his face inches from mine, and whispered.

 "For what's it's worth, you have my blessing."  While I stared, mouth falling open in shock, Tomas winked at me and then bounded to his feet.

 "Wake up, Sierra!  We can't have you sleeping away the whole day."  He called loud enough that Theron, from somewhere nearby, came crashing back into camp.  I glared at Tomas, then tried to plaster a sleepy-confused expression on my face before Theron made it back into camp.

 "Good morning, Theron," I called as he came within sight.  He scowled, reminding me of nothing so much as a sulky child, but then managed to wipe the expression off his face and come over to sit by me.  Tomas crouched in front of us, pointedly ignoring the fact that Theron practically sat with his knee touching mine.  I mentally rolled my eyes.

 "I thought that today we should perhaps scout into Lothering and see what is happening there, maybe make sure we haven't missed Alistair and Aedan on the way here.  From what Sierra has said, I don't think we should stay in town," I shook my head in confirmation, "but we need some information."

 "I should go."  I cut him off before he could say any more.  He opened his mouth to object, but I raised my hand to silence him.  "You two may look slightly different with your fancy new haircuts, but the fact is, you're both supposed to be dead and we can't afford for rumours of either of you to circulate and get back to Loghain.  And there are some of his men already in town, harassing the townsfolk and looking for Alistair and Aedan.  No one in Ferelden knows me, and I can go there without being recognised.  There are enough templars remaining at the Chantry that I shouldn't have to fear for my safety, and it should be days at least before the darkspawn swarm this place.  I'll find out what I can, maybe see if I can buy some food, and come back."  The men looked at each other, both obviously reluctant to go but knowing I was right.  "The only concern is if I disappear again while I'm there.  So I propose that I head into town, you guys wait until tonight, and if I don't come back you can try to sneak in tomorrow."  They both finally nodded.

 "I'll get cleaned up and then put on my fancy new dress.  The only other thing, is, well... I'm going to have to act like a noblewoman, until I can get some suitable common clothing at least.  I need a name of some minor, unknown noble I can claim to be related to if anyone asks.  The daughter of a younger son, something like that.  Somewhere to say I'm from.  It has to be small enough that no one in Lothering is likely to ever have been there.  Theron, do you have any ideas?"

 "Let me think while you wash up."

 I headed to the stream, washing my hands and face thoroughly and wetting my hair so I could put it up in an updo.  Thank God for hair that stays braided without elastics!  It was difficult with such a small mirror and only a comb, but I was finally satisfied that it would stay.  I changed my underpants, washing out the dirty pair in the stream with the soap, and tucking them, still damp, into the pack.  I hoped neither Tomas nor Theron went looking through that pocket!  It was warm enough that I took off my bulky jacket, and slipped the dress on over just my t-shirt.  It looked far less rumpled that way, and I was again impressed at the tailor I'd found.  Even though the dress was designed for a larger body, the way it hung, meant to cover layered clothing, meant you couldn’t tell.  Lastly I added the cloak, leaving the hood back for now.

 The looks on both men's faces were priceless when I wandered back into the clearing, forcing myself to stride purposefully, keep good posture, and ever so slightly keep my nose in the air.  Clearly neither thought I could pull off looking like a noblewoman, and my anxiety eased slightly as I thought that just maybe I could fool everyone into believing.  Tomas handed me two pouches with coin, and glancing inside, I immediately understood.  One was virtually empty, holding only a couple of silver coins and half a dozen copper ones.  I was grateful to see they were actual Fereldan currency, not my Roman stuff.  The other pouch was fuller, and I laughed as Theron looked on in amazement as I tucked it securely down the neck of my dress, into my bra.  If anyone tried to rob me, they'd think the small pouch was all I had, and most of the coin would be safe.  Tomas smiled in approval as he watched me.  I left the sword, though I kept the dagger firmly tied to my thigh, invisible under the dress.

 Theron gave me a back-story.  He told me about a minor noble, a Lord William of Wentwater, in the far north, whose land was very isolated on the coast several days outside of Amaranthine.   He'd married a young commoner from the Free Marches in his later years, after his wife and son died, and then been widowed again when she died in childbirth.  He was rarely seen, refusing to come to the Landsmeet and other events, and apparently had two daughters, about my age, neither of whom he let leave the castle.  Of course this spurred a lot of rumours that he was bedding his own girls, but Theron suspected the truth was he was senile and kept his daughters close as nursemaids.  No one had reported seeing them in years, and he couldn't even remember their names, so we decided I should stick with my own.  I could claim to be running away from home, heading to Redcliffe, and that would explain my presence in Lothering.  I fixed the details in my mind, and then Tomas escorted me to within a couple of miles of town.

 Nervous, I headed toward Lothering alone. After a few minutes I came around a bend on the Imperial Highway and stopped, startled.  There were no bandits on the road, and I turned onto the ramp leading down into Lothering.  In place of the ramshackle refugee camp outside of town that I expected, there was a sea of tents, aligned with military precision, and the area was swarming with soldiers.  Some were practicing on hastily roped-off training grounds, some were marching in small units of about a dozen men, hurrying off to do...something.  Others were lounging around, polishing and repairing armour, eating, or sitting in small groups just talking.  There were women bustling around, carrying things, cooking over small fires, hanging laundry in the sun, and generally doing the day-to-day things that were needed to feed and care for that many men.

 Despite the apparent discipline within the camp, a sombre mood hung over the whole area.  All the voices seemed to be hushed whispers, with the exception of the leaders calling out orders.  The only loud noises were the clang of practice swords on shields, and the tromping of feet.  There were guards posted regularly around the edge of the camp, all of them alert and grim.  I noted an area, slightly separated from the rest of the camp, which must have been an infirmary, overflowing with men.  These men had seen battle, I surmised, and some hadn't survived.  The missing troops from Ostagar!

 I skirted the edge of the camp, not anxious to get close to whichever nobleman was leading this army.  My story wouldn't hold up if anyone knew of Lord William.  I tried to blend into a group of refugees, avoiding the soldiers and trudging towards the town proper.  I pulled up the hood on my cloak, hiding my fancy hairdo, and made it to the edge of town without being stopped.  Lothering was much larger than the game had implied, unsurprisingly.  However, the Chantry was visible from the gate where I entered, and I headed in that direction, hoping for information.

 There were soldiers all over the town.  Some marched in groups, and I wondered if they were meant as guards.  Other walked casually, clearly not on duty, talking and heading in and out of shops.  I avoided eye contact, and kept moving towards the building that strongly resembled a church.  Instead of a cross there was the eye and starburst thing I remembered from the game, but otherwise it looked like any rural church from home.

 I found a templar on guard outside the Chantry, and approached him nervously.  I pulled my hood back to show my face, but not enough to show my hair or allow anyone else to get a good look at me.  He looked curiously down at my dress, then offered a slight bow of his head. 

 "My Lady?  How may I assist you?"

 I asked about the soldiers, and he informed me that they were the remnants of the men commanded by Arl Bryland at Ostagar.  The name was familiar, though I couldn't place it, and I filed that away for later.  The Arl himself wasn't with the men, having left in a hurry for Denerim, leaving an underling in command.  He volunteered that the soldiers had orders to keep the peace in Lothering and assist with evacuating the entire town over the next few days.  He knew that the men had come from Ostagar, and had heard conflicting rumours about what had happened there.  Some said the Grey Wardens had betrayed the King, but others heard that Loghain had run away in fear.  Everyone agreed the King and all of the Grey Wardens were dead.  There had apparently been a couple of bar-room brawls between some random travelers and a handful of Bryland's men, and I wondered if the would-be assassins in the tavern where I recalled meeting Leliana had been chased off.  If they had, I figured I should probably try to find Leliana, because I didn't know where she would end up meeting Alistair and Aedan if not during that fight.

 I asked about the evacuation efforts, and he admitted that without Bryland's men, they'd never have been able to manage.  As it was, he thought that they just might be able to get everyone out, but everyone was worried it would take too long.  He hoped that it didn't come down to combat with the horde while refugees were fleeing for their lives.  He seemed frustrated at standing uselessly in front of the Chantry instead of doing something to help.  I was completely sympathetic.

 I asked where I might get food.  He told me that twice a day, the soldiers handed out rations to refugees in the common area, in front of the tavern.  I asked if there was any way to buy some, and he suggested I talk to whoever was in charge over by the wagons.  He pointed out the merchants in the immediate area, adding that the army had either bought or commandeered all the food they had, but left the rest of the gear for the merchants to sell.

 I asked him about Sister Leliana, and he gave me a surprised look.  He told me she was likely inside the Chantry somewhere helping out the Revered Mother.  I thanked him for all the information, and headed to a nearby merchant.  I managed to buy a couple of sturdy packs, a cook pot, some bowls and spoons, and a two extra water skins for a couple of the silver coins in my pouch.  The merchant looked far too pleased, and I realised that I'd probably paid far too much for them, but without any idea of how much things were actually worth, I couldn't haggle effectively.  I stuffed my prizes into one of the packs and headed into the Chantry.

 I immediately heard that voice I knew so well from hours in front of my PC.  I looked around, easily locating the source.  The slim redhead was near the altar, directing a couple of refugees in placing cots and bedrolls in a small space cleared of benches.  She looked exactly like she did in the game, shoulder-length hair with a small, neat braid.  Her French (or I supposed, Orlesian) accent was thick, but coming from a bilingual country, I had no difficulty understanding her.  I didn’t speak the language, but was used to hearing my language spoken in a French accent.  Some of the men seemed to be having trouble though, as one moved one way, one another, and they lost control of the cot they were lifting.  Leliana darted around them, her robes unable to hide the grace and speed of her movements, and caught the edge of the cot before it crashed to the ground.  Settling it gently to the floor, she smiled at both men in thanks and they shuffled off.

 I approached her uncertainly, suddenly unable to think of anything to say to her.  When she glanced up and saw me, she went unnaturally still, face pale as she studied mine.  She glanced about, and I saw fear on her face.  Oh God, she thinks I'm one of Marjolaine's hirelings.  I slowly raised both hands, keeping them still and visible, hoping I could keep her calm before something ugly happened.

 "Can we talk?  Somewhere private?  I swear I am not here to hurt you."  She studied my eyes for a moment, and then nodded, turning to lead me down a back hallway and out into a small garden behind the main building.  She stayed standing, her posture stiff, and I guessed she had a dagger palmed in each tense hand.  I kept my hands visible, put my back to the wall of the building, and sank down to sit carefully on the grass.  I stayed silent, waiting for her to speak first.

 "I...know you.  You were in Orlais.  When I was young, still living with Lady Cecilie.  But...you look the same.  Exactly the same.  How is this possible?" 

 I blinked.  She didn't think I was sent by Marjolaine.  She...saw me, when I had dreamt of her youth.  I hoped that meant she was less likely to kill me on principle.

 "You do like to start with the hard questions, don't you?"  Oh boy.  "Listen, I can't tell you the whole story right now.  It wasn't me you saw, not really.  It was magic, somehow.  I don't exactly understand it, but I wasn't really there.”  I shook my head, unsure of how to explain it.  I tried to change the subject.

 "I'm here, now, because of the Blight.  I know about your vision, Leliana.  The darkness, falling.  The rose that bloomed on the dead rosebush.  But...somehow I changed how things were supposed to happen.  That army isn't supposed to be out there - they weren't supposed to survive.  You were supposed to meet the last two remaining Grey Wardens and aid them during a brawl in the tavern - but now that brawl might not happen.  I'm afraid that the changes mean you won't end up finding the Wardens, and I know they will need your help if they are to end the Blight.  I know it's asking for a big leap of faith, but I'm hoping that you will consent to come with me so I can make sure you find the Wardens you were meant to aid."

 I rambled to a stop, suddenly aware that I probably wasn't making any sense.  I watched the beautiful bard's face, and realised she was much, much better than Duncan at hiding her thoughts.

 "How do you know about my vision?  How do you know what I was, or was not, meant to do?"  She still looked so tense.  I hope I don't get to find out what the pointy end of a dagger feels like anytime soon.

 "The only answer I can give you right now is magic.  There is more to it - isn't there always - but I simply don't have time, right now, to explain it all.  I will, I promise, just not right now.  Look, there are others with me.  I left them outside town, and they are waiting for me.  I was supposed to try to buy some food, get some information, and then return to them.  I would like to request that you come with me to meet them.  If you choose not to stay, after that, you're free to walk away.  I give you my word.  I will give you my weapon; I’ll let you search me, so you know I'm not going to try to harm you.  I warn you that my companions are armed, but they will not harm you either.  I swear it."  She studied my face intently for a while, and I raised the skirt of my dress to remove the dagger I had hiding there, tossing it on the ground at her feet while I waited.

 "You are no Fereldan noblewoman."

 "You have absolutely no idea how correct you are.  I just hope that, for the sake of getting out of town unscathed, I can pretend that I am for a few more minutes."  Finally, she nodded.  Picking up the dagger, she offered it to me hilt first.  I tied it back to my leg, and then took her hand and let her pull me up.

 "I shall help you get past the soldiers and back to your friends.  I promise nothing more until you explain." 

 "Fair enough," I agreed, sighing in relief.  I realised I'd been holding my breath while I waited on her decision.  "Is there any way you could also help me purchase some food?  I just want a few days’ worth of rations for my companions."

 "I know the Sister in charge of helping to distribute the food the army has been providing the refugees.  Let's go and see what we can do."

 Leliana walked with me across the small footbridge to reach the open square.  It was full of people, most looking ragged, despondent, and exhausted.  In the centre there stood a small knot of soldiers surrounding one elderly Chantry sister.  The crowd parted at the sight of Leliana's robes, allowing us through.  She motioned for me to stop a few feet from the group, and she slipped between the armed men to reach the other woman.  They whispered briefly, and I saw Leliana squeeze her hand, nod, and slip back out.  Whether it was the robes or Leliana's skill, I wasn't sure the soldiers had even really recognised her presence.

 "We have to talk to the quartermaster over in the army camp.  If we're unlucky, we will have to talk to the lieutenant.  I need to know your cover story if I'm to be able to help you.  You do have one, I hope?"  She murmured this in my ear, and I responded in kind as we walked through town.

 "I'm Lady Sierra of Wentwater.  My father is Lord William.  I am on the run from home - I've been kept in that castle since I was a little girl, never allowed friends or suitors, and I'm going to go mad if I stay.  I have an ...uh, acquaintance, who's gone to Redcliffe to be a guard, and I'm going there to be with him.  I'm trying to travel without drawing much attention, because if my father catches me I'll never see the light of day again."

 Leliana laughed, twining her arm through mine to keep me close to her as we walked.  "And is any of that true?"

 "Well, there is a Lord William of Wentwater.  And he does have daughters who he never lets out, apparently.  But the rest?  Not so much."

 We arrived at the edge of the army camp, and Leliana led me through the maze of tents and people with finesse.  We found the quartermaster, who started shouting the moment she opened her mouth and said the word food.  Backing away as he muttered curses under his breath, we exchanged a look and turned to head toward the command tent.

 Eyeing Leliana's Chantry robes, or maybe just eyeing Leliana, one of the guards outside stepped in to see if the lieutenant would see us.  We heard a barked "Come!", and she dragged me into the large tent as the guard saluted and went back outside.

 The lieutenant was a tall, handsome man with the exception of a large, angry, poorly healing scar across his face from forehead, across the bridge of his nose, and down to his cheek.  He seemed uncomfortable with it, one hand straying up to touch the edges that were the most raised and irritated.  Leliana immediately exclaimed, bearing down on him like...well, like a priest I suppose, pushing him down to kneel while she inspected the damage.  She tsk'd at him for not coming sooner for healing, and pulled out a small vial of red fluid - a health poultice - from a pocket in her robes.  She dribbled some of the fluid onto a thin strip of cloth, and proceeded to dab at the length of the cut.  He tried to stop her, but she was relentless and I had to admire her no-nonsense attitude.  In short order, the laceration was closed, the puckered and reddened skin edges fading as I watched.  Soon the scar looked several years old, just a thin white line across his handsome face.

 "Now, are there many others with unhealed wounds like this?"  She demanded. 

 The poor lieutenant under scrutiny climbed to his feet, his face red from embarrassment as he shook his head.  Leliana stroked his cheek with a smile, and the irritation faded, and suddenly I knew we would get anything she asked for.  She's good!

I watched, impressed, as she pled with him to buy rations for me, weaving a much more romantic tale of my flight from my oppressive father and my dashing betrothed than I'd been able to muster.  I don't think he heard a word of it, but when he’d determined all she wanted was to pay for some rations, he agreed immediately.  He thanked her, of all things, kissed her hand, bowed slightly to me, and asked the guard to take us back to the quartermaster and tell him to sell us the food.

 The guard thanked Leliana profusely for taking care of the lieutenant's injury; apparently he'd insisted everyone else get healed, but wouldn’t accept it himself deeming his wound cosmetic and therefore unimportant.  It seemed the lieutenant was well liked, and I could see why.  Leliana took my two remaining silver coins from the small purse in my cloak pocket, and haggled with the quartermaster for rations to feed us for several days, even once Aedan and company caught up to us.  I unfolded the second pack I'd bought, and Leliana carried it as we left the army camp.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight: Mabari Endorsement

 Once we got to the Imperial Highway, I lead, chatting with Leliana as we walked.  I told her about Tomas and Theron, reminding myself to be even more careful with their aliases than I already was being.  I explained that we were survivors from Ostagar waiting to meet up with three others, including two Grey Wardens - I think the existence of a third Grey Warden should remain a secret for now - and that we had a plan to defeat the Blight.

 "So, two Grey Wardens, two warriors, and a mage.  And what skills do you bring to the group, may I ask?"  I opened my mouth to admit that I really didn't have any skills, just as Theron stepped onto the path from the trees.

 "She's the brains.  At least, I'm hoping she is, because we keep following her advice."  Theron grinned, Leliana laughed, and I blushed.  I stammered out introductions, and Theron held his arm out, I think expecting me to take it.  I surreptitiously pushed Leliana forward, feeling only slightly guilty for throwing her under the bus, but she gamely took the proffered arm and Theron couldn't refuse without being rude.  I tried not to smirk.

 We walked into the trees a little ways, and Theron opened his mouth to talk just as I heard laughter, and shouting, the bark of a large dog, and that voice...that distinctive voice that I knew so well, from my own fantasies as well as the game. 

 "Theron!  You didn't tell me they'd arrived!"  I rushed forward, suddenly optimistically eager to see my fantasy brother and my fantasy man, and burst into the clearing where I'd built the fire the night before.

 First I saw a brown blur, as a growling canine creature came running at me across the camp.  I had one second to see Alistair's face - well, that's unfair, he's even better looking in real life - before I saw bared teeth, heard someone shout, and nearly soiled myself.  Mabari are huge!  The hound rushed up to me, stopping just short of bowling me over, looked up at me and sniffed in my direction, turned around to face towards the camp it had come from, and sat on my foot.  My vocal cords finally caught up with the rest of me, and I squawked in a combination of fear and discomfort as my foot was squished by about a hundred pounds of dog butt.  The crazy animal turned his head, licked my hand, and woofed happily, then returned to looking across the camp from his perch.

 Everyone stopped to stare.  Theron and Tomas, Morrigan and Alistair, Aedan and even Leliana.  In the game, it implied Mabari were one-person dogs.  They imprinted for life.  They didn't like anyone else until they were proven to be looking out for their master, and even then it was conditional upon good behaviour.  I had absolutely no idea what to do with the overgrown critter deciding he owned me, when I was sure Aedan belonged to him first.

 I gently extracted my foot from his hind end, trying to ignore everyone watching me as I hunkered down beside him.  I realised I didn't even know his name.  I held my hand out near him but not reaching towards him, palm up, fingers extended.  It was all I could think of to be non-threatening.  He looked over at me, hung his tongue out of the side of his mouth in a goofy smile, and then rested his snout in my hand.  I cautiously scratched under his chin, and he wagged his tail and chuffed.  I slowly brought my other hand over to pat his head, and ended up scratching behind one upturned ear.  He tilted his head with a pleased whine and closed his eyes.

 "Who's a good dog?  Yeah.  That's right.  Good dog.  I, um, I don't know your name, fuzzybutt.  However, I'm Sierra.  Thanks for the vote of confidence." 

 He opened one eye, only to roll it at me as if to say "Duh."

 "Aedan?"  I didn't stop watching the mabari, clearly enjoying the attention as I found ticklish spots on his head and down his back.  His fur was surprisingly soft, and remarkably clean for the moment.  I figured that wouldn't last long but enjoyed it nonetheless.

 I heard footsteps approach, and out of the corner of my eye saw a tall, lean, dark-haired man crouch down beside us. 

"Yes?"

 "I'm assuming you belong to this furball.  What's his name?"

 "Prince." 

 I laughed. 

 "What?"

 "I used to...dream I had a mabari too.  In my dreams I named mine Prince as well."  Prince opened his eyes, huffed at me to say "enough talking", and then thoroughly licked my face, making me sputter and curse.  Aedan cracked up, but that only lasted until Prince turned to him and repeated the same action, with the same result, and both of us shouting "Prince, no!"

 Aedan stood, and offered me a hand.  My legs were a bit numb from crouching for so long, and I needed the assist.  I finally looked up from the ridiculously self-satisfied dog to find everyone still staring at me, open-mouthed.  As I looked from one face to the next, I saw expressions ranging from suspicion and worry on Alistair's handsome face, to a slightly embarrassed, guilty look on Aedan's, to attempted indifference on Morrigan's.  It didn't take much to figure out who they'd been talking about before I interrupted their conversation.

 I did notice that Alistair had his hand on Tomas' shoulder, and looked like he would never let go.  Tomas bore an embarrassed but pleased half-grin, and I knew he was as happy to see the ex-templar as Alistair was to see him.  Alistair and Aedan were both liberally coated in gore, and I remembered the darkspawn ambush when the mabari caught up with the party from the game.  I tried to be discreet, looking at them both, but couldn't see any obvious injuries.  Morrigan, on the other hand, was clean.  And somehow dirty at the same time.  Put on some clothes, woman!

 I turned to Aedan, who still held my hand, and converted the assist to a firm handshake.

 "Hi.  I'm Sierra.  You're Aedan.  It's nice to meet you."  I almost told him I was sorry for the loss of his family, but figured he wouldn't want to hear it from a suspicious stranger.  "Leliana?  This is Aedan.  A Grey Warden.  Aedan, Leliana is my...friend."  I hope.  "I told her she had nothing to fear from you and the Grey Wardens."

 I left them exchanging greetings after that thinly veiled plea and approached Alistair.  Trying to keep in mind that I wasn't his, not in this world, and that he had every reason to think I was either deranged or evil, I kept a vacuous smile on my face, held out my hand, and introduced myself to him.  I made eye contact, and felt a bit overwhelmed.  He was way more gorgeous than in the game, but they got the expressiveness of his face dead on.  And I was right - he was huge.  It was hard to tell exactly when he was in plate armour, but he towered over me, and I hadn't ever thought of myself as short.  His eyebrows quirked up, and despite the obvious emotions passing across his face he tried to smile.  My mouth dried out, my tongue glued itself to my palate, and I mumbled my way through introductions to Leliana.

 Next was Morrigan.  I didn't offer her my hand, but tried to give her a friendly smile.  "Hello, Morrigan." 

 "So.  What are you supposed to be, then?  Demon?  Fade spirit?  Another apostate, perhaps?"  She was baiting me, trying to see how I'd react.  I think.  I'd know if I was a demon, right?  I kept my cool.  I remembered in the game always thinking you could never afford to lose your temper or be overly emotional in front of Morrigan.  Not without paying a price.  I heard Leliana mutter, though the rest of the group seemed unsurprised.  Clearly this was what they'd been discussing then.

 "Just Sierra, I'm afraid.  Quite boring, actually, by comparison to those possibilities!"  I heard Alistair snicker, and could picture the look on his face without turning.  This is...surreal.  "I'm pleased to meet you.  I wish I could have met your mother, but I didn't know how to find your home in the Wilds.  Perhaps one day I will."

 "I have never heard of a demon with polite manners.  I suppose I'll have to cross that one off the list, shall I?"  Without waiting for introductions to Leliana, or any sort of response, she turned and strode off into the bush.  After an embarrassed silence, I cleared my throat and turned back to the rest of the group. 

 "And Leliana, you met Theron already," Alistair twitched in surprise when I said the name, pointing at the individual in question, but Tomas gave him a look and he quieted down, "but this is Tomas."  He nodded at her.  "Leliana was just telling me that Loghain has set a bounty on the head of any Grey Warden brought in, dead or alive.  So you guys," I gestured to Alistair and Aedan, "need to be careful with your identities.  It's a good thing your likenesses are not well known."  I gave Alistair and Aedan a direct look, each in turn, and saw both men catch on to the silent warning I was trying to give.  I was right.  Alistair's not dumb.  Smarter than Cailan, by far.

 "So, we brought some food.  Anyone hungry?"  I gestured to the pack Leliana still carried, and then turned away from the group to quickly work the coin purse out of my cleavage.  I handed both back to Tomas, and he tucked them away somewhere faster than I could blink.  Does he practice doing that?  Everyone grabbed a bite, and we all ate, awkwardly, silently.  I tried to avoid feeling self-conscious despite knowing that practically everyone was either staring at me or studiously avoiding me.  Prince wandered over, after begging scraps from pretty much everyone, and settled at my feet.  Oh good, more staring.  I was sort of uncomfortable, and I finally shrugged off my cloak, reached down to grab the hem of my dress, and removed it, just like I had the day before.  I heard Alistair sputter until he realised I was fully clothed underneath.  It was starting to get dark and chilly.  I heard rustling, and Tomas tossed my coat at me after fishing it out of one of the packs.  I smiled my thanks and put it on, still aware of the stares.  I finally broke the silence.

 "So...who'd like to talk?  I think we should talk."  I grabbed a couple of pieces of wood to toss on the fire, then settled down to sit cross legged.  I heard Theron snort and Alistair gasp, and rolled my eyes as I switched to a more ladylike position.  That's going to get old, fast.  Everyone slowly took seats, with the exception of Tomas who paced nearby.  I made sure not to sit near Theron.  I finally called out, clearly but not loudly, "Morrigan?  I won't push it, but I'd love it if you would join us for this.  Otherwise everyone will assume you haven't heard it." 

 I heard some rustling in the bushes, and then her voice as she called back "One moment, please."  Tomas jumped, and I grinned.  Shapechanging for the win.  Morrigan emerged from the shadows and gracefully sank onto a rock; nearby, but not part of the circle.  Good enough.

 "I'm going to explain to everyone here who I am.  Theron and Tomas have heard this story, but it's weird enough that I hope not to bore them with the repetition.  As strange as it may seem, I actually trust each and every one of you implicitly.  But there is a slight problem.  I know you all have secrets, things you don't wish to discuss with strangers, or in this group.  I know many of those secrets, and I will explain how that is so in a minute.  But I don't wish to reveal secrets that aren't mine to tell.  With Tomas and Theron, we discovered it was easier, eventually, to have some discussions one on one.  So I'm going to describe who I am, but there are going to be times where you think I'm leaving things out, or being deliberately vague.  You'll be right.  Because I'll be avoiding telling someone's secret.  So please bear with me."  I looked around at the strange collection of faces around me, getting at least hesitant nods from each one.  It's a start.  I took a deep breath and began.

 I repeated the story I'd told Theron and Tomas.  The theatre performance analogy, the window, the sending stone.  Watching the events of the Blight unfold through Aedan's eyes.  The dizzy spells, the dreams, then waking in the Wilds on the day of the battle.  The battle, the fear, and then finding that somehow, Theron and Tomas survived when no one else did.  Us leaving Ostagar, walking slowly to allow Alistair, Aedan, and Morrigan to catch up.  Me disappearing for two days, out of the middle of camp, with even Tomas, on watch, surprised.  Returning just as suddenly in the middle of a fight, and the darkspawn ignoring me.   Everyone asked questions, all of them good, most of them I couldn't answer.

 And then I repeated the same process with the larger group that I'd gone through with Tomas and Theron.  I passed around my boots, my coat, and my map of Thedas.  I dragged my safety pins and compass, Swiss army knife and hand flashlight out of Tomas' pack.  I flicked the lighter, asked Tomas to show them some of the money I'd given him.  At some point Theron stood, wandering around camp, watching the rest of the group watch me.

 Morrigan finally stirred, when I was done.  She stepped up behind me, and I swivelled to face her.

 "May I?"  She held out her hand, and I placed mine in it.  Suddenly Theron stepped between us, knocking aside her hand.

 "I believe her.  I saw her just appear out of thin air.  She doesn't need to be...tested, by an apostate."

 I raised my hand, lightly touching Theron's arm.  "It's okay.  I'd like to know.  If she can tell me anything about how I'm here, what magic this is, then I welcome it."  Nudging Theron out of the way, I held my hand out to Morrigan again.  "I said I trust you, and I meant it.  And Alistair?  Please don't smite anyone unless you've confirmed I'm dead.  I don't want any misunderstandings."  I heard a grumble, but ignored it, still making eye contact with Morrigan.  She took my hand, and I felt that familiar crackly aura like when I'd been near the Emissaries while they were casting spells.  I resisted the urge to twitch.  I felt more than saw a ball of energy leave her and pass into me, and I could almost feel it running through my body, up and down my extremities, giving me butterflies in my stomach, briefly making my head burn, and then it returned back through me to her hand again.  I waited with bated breath.

 "Human.  Definitely not a demon, or an abomination, and I don't feel any sign of mage power.  I'm sorry, I've no idea."

 "You sound disappointed, Morrigan.  Like I said...I'm just boring Sierra."  I was rewarded with what looked like an actual smile, for the briefest of moments, before she rose, spun on her heel, and left camp again.  I turned back to the circle, making eye contact with Alistair next.

 "Your turn." 

 He jumped as though I'd stung him.  "Me?"

 "Yes.  Smite me, or whatever it is that you do.  I want to see if you think I'm a mage.  Tomas already wondered if it was possible.  I can't imagine it is, but...frankly, stranger things have happened." 

 "I can't!  I won't.  It's painful, if I do it that way.  Even if you're not a mage."

 "But you'd be able to tell?"

 "Ye-es, I suppose, but..."

 "Please?  I need to know, Alistair.  I think we all need to know.  Tomas knocked me over a bunch of times yesterday, ask him.  I can handle a little bit of pain."  Alistair and Aedan both turned nasty glares on Tomas, and I laughed.  "He was trying to teach me how not to impale myself or drop my sword in combat.  It's not his fault I'm clumsy.  Please, Alistair?"  I'd half bum-shuffled, half crawled over to him by this point, and he looked distinctly uncomfortable as I pleaded with him.  I put my hand out, uncertain if he needed physical contact for it to work.

 "Well not here, certainly!  It'll hurt everyone, and leave Morrigan retching up her guts."  He got up, carefully, and I scrambled to my feet as well, following him out twenty feet or so from camp.  He turned to look at me, opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.  Finally his shoulders sagged.

 I felt a shockwave hit me.  It's the best description I could come up with.  It rippled the ground, raising the dust, and rocketed straight through my bones.  I was lifted slightly and propelled back a ways, landing on my back in the dirt.  I had the breath knocked out of me, and I clutched my chest for a moment before I was able to gasp a breath.  I heard footsteps, and then everyone was there standing over me.  Alistair looked sick, kneeling beside me, like he'd killed a kitten or something, and I tried my best to look reassuring.  Theron bent down, lifting me in his arms, holding me for a moment before I insisted he set me down.  I didn't miss the speculative look Aedan gave Theron and me both.

 "So?  What's the verdict?"

 "Definitely not a mage."  I was relieved and smiled thankfully at him before turning to walk back to camp.  My legs gave out from under me, and Theron caught me again, to my utter dismay.  He carried me back to the camp, setting me down near the fire.  Tomas moved over beside me to take my hand and ask if I was all right.  I squeezed back and nodded.  Alistair shouldered Theron out of the way to sit beside me and apologise effusively, and I wondered if he even thought about who he'd just shoved.  I didn't miss the daggers Theron directed at Tomas as I continued to hold his hand, though.  I got another speculative look from Aedan, and knew I was blushing again.  And then he grinned, crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue, and I choked as a laugh tried to explode out of my sore chest.  That triggered yet another round of apologies from Alistair, but fortunately Tomas handed me a water skin so I could clear my throat.

 Finally I got my breathing back to normal, and realised we still hadn't discussed what I'd learned in Lothering.  I shook my head and launched into it - the presence of Arl Bryland's men, the rumours flying about who betrayed who.

 "Bryland?  These aren't his lands.  The Bann here is Ceorlic.  Why are Bryland's men here?"

 Leliana cleared her throat softly.  "Apparently the Bann withdrew with his men, leaving the common people behind.  They didn't even try to help evacuate, and in fact, left a bunch of badly wounded soldiers behind for us to care for.  When Arl Bryland marched through, he left part of his army to try to get as many refugees as possible out of Lothering.  They've been incredibly effective, and I think that, if the darkspawn hold off for two or three more days, the evacuation will be complete."

 "I'm not surprised," offered Aedan.  "Bryland is a good man.  Ceorlic is a snake."

 I mentioned the confirmation that Loghain was hunting for any surviving Grey Wardens.  Theron blew his cover multiple times, suggesting that we all just march into town and demand that Bryland's men give us a Royal Escort to get back to Denerim.  Leliana's mouth dropped open as she figured out who he really was.  Tomas and I argued with him, with even Aedan jumping in a couple of times, but I finally lost my temper.

 "His Majesty," I gave him a dirty look, and he winced, "has the ability to command us to do as he wills.  However, I suggest that he rethink how much he enjoys having his royal head attached to his royal neck.”  I stood, pacing.  “Loghain has shown that he will do anything, risk everything to ensure your death.  Are you so arrogant that you believe you can outsmart him that easily?  Do you think he doesn't have agents in every Bann's army, in every town, who will report your existence without a second thought?  If you think the bounty on the Grey Wardens is large, imagine how much he would pay to get your head on a platter.

 "Whether you like it or not, you don't have the right to go down in a blaze of glory.  You're the bloody King.  You don't take unnecessary risks with your royal person.  You don't trust in the goodwill of the average soldier, you don't announce your presence when someone is trying to have you assassinated, especially someone willing to sacrifice half of Ferelden's armies to make it look accidental.  You don't fight on the front lines, you don't face the Archdemon, and you don't ignore the people working their asses off to save your life. 

 "You haven't seen Ferelden without a clear line of succession.  I have.  I've seen the civil war, the abuse, the chaos that follows if you die.  You don't get to be selfish.  You get to stay safe inside the palace, or at the back of the army, out of harm's way, letting your men concentrate on fighting instead of worrying about keeping their King alive.  You get to die old and toothless, surrounded by grandchildren.  You don't have to enjoy it, but your people deserve it from you.

 "Do you understand that I risked dying, willingly put myself into the middle of a battle I knew in advance we couldn't win, just hoping somehow to bring you back from the dead?  Me, the business consultant, who'd never even punched someone before, never mind held a sword.  Tomas almost died for you.  Thousands of men did die for you.  Some of the people standing here lost everything in the last few days, for you.  Don't you dare make it all for nothing.  You don't get that right."

 Sometime during my rant I headed towards him, and was now standing directly in front of Theron, mere inches from poking his chest every time I made a point.  I suddenly realised what I had done, and, mortified at my own verbal diarrhea, I clapped both hands over my mouth, sobbed once, and then turned and ran off into the darkness around the camp.  I heard swearing behind me as I ran, and I dodged between trees and rocks as best I could in the moonlight.  I ran for several minutes, stopping only when I tripped on something in the dark and crashed down onto my knees.

 I curled up into a ball, shoulders shaking as I cried.  I tried not to, hating the tears even as they streamed down my face, but I couldn't make them stop.  I heard rustling, and felt a heavy, furry body climb over me to squirm in front of me and lay down.  I wrapped my arms around the dog and let his thick fur absorb my tears.

 I heard someone calling my name after a few minutes, and realised that I'd recognise that voice anywhere.  "I'm here, Alistair," I managed to choke out, and I heard heavy footsteps approach.  I heard him settle to the ground behind me, and slowly put his hand out to touch my arm.

 "So are you the executioner?"  I tried to laugh, but it came out a croak.  "Make it quick, please.  I'd rather not linger, if it's all the same to you." 

 Alistair chuckled, softly.  “I forgot to bring my axe.  You’re safe.”

 "Did you get the short stick, having to come find me?  I'm sorry."

 "You kidding?  Everyone is out here looking for you, with the possible exception of Cailan.  I'm just lucky enough to have found you first.  I owe you...so much.  I don't know how, but it's clear Duncan believes you saved them.  I owe you everything.”  He paused, looking at me speculatively.    

 "When you said some of us have lost everything recently, you meant me, didn't you."

 I nodded.  "Yes.  And Aedan."

 "Thank you for that.  I've never had someone get so angry on my behalf before."

 "Thank me when he agrees to go into hiding until we can safely get him back on the throne."

 "Well, if anything was going to scare him into it, I think seeing you in a rage would probably do it."

 "He needs to grow up, there's no question.  But really, you'd think I'd know by now that screaming at petulant children doesn't tend to make them do what you want them to."  Alistair barked out a laugh, and I grinned.  "I wish I had learned how to guilt people into doing things from my foster mother.  She was amazing.  She never yelled once, just gave you this face that made you feel like a terrible disappointment.  I bet that would work on him pretty well."

 "She sounds like the Revered Mother during my templar training.  The way that woman wields guilt, she should have been in the army."  We both chuckled, and fell silent again.  Finally, he stirred.  "So.  Want to go back and face the music?"

 "Not particularly.  I think I'll just lay here for a while, if you don't mind."

 "Oh, uh, okay.  Should I stay?  Or..."

 Suddenly Tomas stepped out of the shadows, and Alistair and I jumped.  He hadn't made a single sound.

 "You go back to camp, Alistair.  I'll stay here for a bit."

 "Alright, Du...Tomas."  I grinned at the same mistake I'd been making for days.

 I rolled onto my back, slightly, and poked Prince in the ribs gently.  "Go back to camp with Alistair, Prince.  Go find Aedan."  He whined, but I shooed him away, and he eventually fell in step beside Alistair as they trudged away.

 "You never stop taking care of others, it seems."  He watched Alistair disappear into the darkness, a fond smile on his face.  He settled down onto the ground beside me.  "You know the dog can find his way back to camp.  You worry Alistair can't."

 I grimaced.  "Stop doing that.  I'm trying to be all mysterious, here."  He laughed.  I sat up; running my fingers through my hair, I discovered and tried to pick out leaves and twigs that had tangled there.

 "You made quite an impression back there."

 "It was stupid.  I'm sorry.  I know it's going to make Cailan...sorry, Theron even harder for you to manage.  Honestly, sometimes that man makes me feel like we're herding cats.  He just gets under my skin!  I may not like her, but with him on the throne, Ferelden is damned lucky he married Anora, or it all would have fallen apart in weeks after his coronation."

 "It's alright.  Sometimes things need to be said.  And I might not have worded it exactly that way-“ Duncan grinned slightly, “-but I don't disagree with anything you said.  He needed to hear it, and I do actually think it will do some good.  He wanted to come out here to find you and apologise, but Aedan and Leliana cornered him and asked him to imagine what your opinion would be of the King wandering off, alone, into the forest at night, when there were other people better equipped to check on you.  He grumbled about it, but he stayed put."

 "Will miracles never cease?  Man, I knew I'd love Leliana." 

 Tomas laughed.  He reached out and took my hand, squeezing it gently.  "Sierra?  You know that I'm not...well, that I don't..."

 "...want to sleep with me?  I know."

 "It's not just you.  I'm not..."

 "...interested in women?  But what about that mage – back before you went to the Deep Roads with Maric?”

 “It’s not so much women as…well, honestly I’ve just had too much to do.  Meeting the Architect, seeing what it did to my Commander…Sex isn’t high on my list of priorities.  My life has been all about darkspawn.  And besides, I’m a hair’s breadth from my Calling – it’s not like there’s a future in a relationship with me.”

 “Don't worry.  I'm not looking to fall in love with you, just trying to avoid a confrontation with Theron."

 "I thought as much.  So, given that, it seems to me that perhaps the one thing you might need right now is some simple comfort.  And since I can't offer you tea, or a warm bath, or any of those other comforting things, I thought that maybe I could just sit with you and let you fall asleep feeling safe..."

 I leaned over and interrupted him with a kiss on the cheek.  He shuffled around to put his back against a tree stump, and lifted his arm to offer me a place to curl up.  I put my head on his shoulder, and he draped his arm around me.  I thought that his armour might make an uncomfortable pillow, but I was wrong.  Or I just didn't care.  I'm not sure which.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine: Earning Trust

 I woke several hours later, Tomas still awake and still holding me.  Dawn had just begun, and the sky was beautiful in pinks and oranges.

 "No sleep again?  You be careful, ser, or I will start shouting at you in front of the entire group."  He smirked.  I kissed his cheek again, impulsively.  "You'd have made a wonderful father, just for the record."

 Tomas actually blushed.  We both worked our way to our feet, and I followed him back to the camp.  He crept over to the fire and curled up quietly to have a nap.  I nodded to Aedan, who was apparently on watch.  He gave Tomas a pointed look, then looked back at me and waggled his eyebrows suggestively.  I shook my head, miming sleep.  He made the same gesture at Theron, and I grimaced, shaking again.  He turned to look at Alistair's sleeping form, instead, and then raised his eyebrows in an unspoken question.

 Great.  I met the guy five minutes ago and he can bloody tell I'm attracted to Alistair.  Note to self - learn to be a better actor.  I shrugged, refusing to confirm or deny.  I wasn't going to admit to anything.  I turned away to hide my blush.

 Theron was sitting at the edge of camp, awake, refusing to make eye contact with me.  I walked over and sat, facing him.  I waited for a moment to see if he would look at me, but he refused.  I opened my mouth to apologise, but he spoke first.

 So.  Duncan, huh?"

 I was speechless.  So not where I expected this conversation to go.

 "I guess I get it.  I hear lots of women like older men.  And, you know, he's a Grey Warden, and it's so...romantic."  He put a strange emphasis on the last word.

 "Your Majesty..."

 "Don't, Sierra.  Please.  Just for five minutes, can't it be just Cailan?"

 "Just Cailan, then.  It's not like that."

 "What is it like, then?  I have so much more to give you, you know.  Anything you want, you'd just have to ask.  What does he have to offer that I don't?"  If I couldn't hear the hurt in his voice, I'd have laughed.  ‘Just Cailan’ my ass.

 "So you've decided then that I am a whore?  That I sell my body for things, or for power?  That I should use sound, logical, business sense to decide who I will be with?  With you, I'd have access to money, be able to influence the running of the country, so I should pick you instead of someone else?  I feel so very...valuable, right now."  I kept my voice quiet.  One screaming fit per twenty-four hour period only.  Besides, I knew that he was just being a hurt child, and that he hadn't thought through the implications of what he was saying.  I could be patient with that for a little bit.

 "That's not what I meant, and you know it."

 "I do know it, but do you?  Are you sure?  I do know what this is for you.  I'm an unknown.  I'm mysterious, a damsel in distress.  And you've probably never been told no by a woman in your life.  You are fascinated by the mystery, but we both know this isn't love, 'Just Cailan'.  We've only known each other for four days!

 "And even if it were, try to think about this from my point of view for a moment.  You're married.  So maybe you put aside Anora, and maybe you don't.  But even if you do, I'm not Queen material.  I don't have the skills, don't have the pedigree.  I'll shout at all the nobles in the Landsmeet and offend them all completely.  I don't even know if I'll stick around - maybe I just disappear for good, next time.  There is no way that you could ever have me as your Queen. 

 "So I'd have to be your mistress.  And then what?  Live in the palace?  Anora would have my head.  So I'd get a room somewhere, and have to sneak in to the palace to see you.  Wait weeks between visits when you're busy with affairs of state.  And do what, while I'm waiting?  I don't exactly knit.  So I spend all my time waiting for word that I can sneak in five minutes with you, risk getting caught and you being forced to end it with me, or being manipulated and used by political rivals in various schemes, or getting kidnapped for ransom.  And then, one day, I get pregnant.  And then I'm raising a royal bastard, torn between the fear that you'll love your legitimate children more - or that you won't and my children become pawns in someone's political game.  And some day, maybe something like Ostagar happens, and you and whatever legitimate heirs you have die, and my poor kid is being put on the throne against his will just to keep the great Calenhad bloodline going.

 "What, exactly, can you offer me, 'Just Cailan'?  You can't even offer me fidelity."

 Cailan stared at me for a moment, his face red.  "Wow.  You really must hate me."

 I reached out and touched his cheek, gently.  "I don't, Cailan.  I actually like you, most of the time.  You're handsome, you're funny, and you're caring.  I think if you tame some of your impulses, you could be a truly amazing leader.  I will do anything I can to help you get back on your throne, to help you find happiness.  But you won't find happiness with me.  I'm just not capable of giving you that.

 "For the record, no, not with Duncan either.  He's an adoptive father for me.  I'm not bedding him, nor will I ever.  I promise."

 "You spent the night alone in the woods..."

 "He sat watch, and I cried on his shoulder.  That's it.  I swear.  Armour makes a better pillow than you might think."

 He seemed to accept that, and some of the unhappiness on his face eased.

 "So do you think...could we be friends, instead?  Or maybe, could I be like an honorary sister?  I promise to always see you as ‘Just Cailan’, even when protocol dictates I don't say it out loud, and you promise to keep that sense of humour going, and we both have someone to turn to when we just need to talk or whatever?  Could we do that?"

 He hesitated for a moment, then nodded.  "I'd like that.  I've never had a sister."

 "Cailan, about last night..."

 "You were right.  About everything."

 "I wasn't.  Some of it, sure, but...you didn't ask for any of this either, and you're trying to put up with an intolerable situation.  I was angry, and well, scared.”  I ran a somewhat shaky hand through my hair.  “I need you to survive, Cailan.  I've seen what happens if you don't.  Promise me you'll listen to Duncan, let him keep you safe?  If you promise to listen to him, I promise never to shout at you again.  In public, at least."

 "I can live with that.  I'd hate to have to use that rack after all."  I giggled, and it felt good to laugh.  He took on a mischievous expression.  "So, if you're my sister, now, does that mean I can do this?"  Cailan grabbed me in a sudden headlock, and then used his knuckles to mess up my hair and rub my scalp.  I squealed, reaching down and finding a small handful of mud, turning to smear it on his face when he let me go.  He roared, and I jumped up, running away before he could get me back.  He chased me, and we woke the rest of the camp laughing as Prince joined the game, jumping and barking as I hid and he tried to catch me.

 Alistair sat up, looking grumpy, complaining loudly.  "Maker's ass, couldn't you make up a little bit later in the day?"

 I finally collapsed down by the packs, digging through one to find a small hunk of cheese I'd noticed at supper last night.  After I handed it over, Alistair forgave me, too.  It's going to be a good day.

 ********

Once everyone was awake and fed, we all gathered near the fire to plan.  Morrigan was even present, to my surprise.  She'd spent the night as a bird, watching but not participating.  It seemed...lonely.  I feel sorry for Morrigan?  Huh.  Everyone wanted time to talk to me one on one, to test my assertions that I knew them, to ask about the future.  And I had no desire to go back to Lothering, so that worked for me.

 We needed more supplies if we were going to be traveling, and we needed time to plan where to go first.  I knew that plan wouldn't be cemented until everyone had convinced themselves that I knew as much as I said I did.  I also knew we had one more companion in town to pick up before we left, and had to hope to find Bodahn and Sandal despite the changing events.

 Since Theron, Tomas, and Morrigan would probably be better left outside of town in case they were recognised, we decided that I would spend a bit of time talking to Aedan, Alistair, and Leliana, then they would head into town and I would remain with the others.  So while everyone else sat patching armour, cleaning weapons, or just trying to relax, I found myself wandering out into the woods with Aedan and Prince beside me.

 First he asked me to tell him what I knew about him.  I reminded him that I had seen the events through his eyes, so didn't really get the opportunity to know his thoughts or learn his secrets like I did everyone else.  But then I recounted all that I could remember of the human noble origin.  We talked about Mother Mallol, and the scholar Aldous; meeting Duncan and being informed that Aedan wouldn't be accompanying the army.  His father's nickname for him - 'pup'.  Fighting giant rats with Prince and Ser Gilmore in the pantry.  Aedan got an interesting look on his face when I mentioned Roderick - Rory, apparently, for short - Gilmore, but I couldn't read it.  Then running into Lady Landra and her son.  Darren?  Something like that.  Saying goodbye to Fergus, and finally going to bed, only to be woken by fighting.  Eleanor in armour, realising the men attacking were Howe's men.  Finding Orianna and little Oren, even Lady Landra.  Fighting through to Ser Gilmore, and leaving him to die trying to hold the gates while Aedan and Eleanor ran in search of Bryce.  Finding Bryce in the pantry, dying, Duncan confirming he wouldn't survive trying to flee.  Duncan's agreement with Bryce that Aedan join the Grey Wardens, and Eleanor deciding to stay behind and defend their retreat.

 Aedan broke down and cried, and I wrapped my arms around him.  I knew this was likely his first chance to mourn them.  I held him, slowly sinking to the ground while he sobbed.

 "I left them.  I should have stayed.  I should have fought.  Mother, and Father, Rory...I just walked away and left them!"

 I stroked his short dark hair, feeling him shake as he sobbed.  I whispered the platitudes I knew wouldn't help, but I tried anyway.  When he finally looked up, I wiped his tears with my sleeve and he kissed my cheek.

 "Don't tell anyone, okay?"

 "Don't tell them what?  That you're human?  I think they believe you about that, even if they don't all believe me." 

 He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes.  "So...what becomes of Highever, now that the last Cousland had to renounce my claim to the title?"

 "Oh, no!  Aedan, I am such an idiot.  I completely forgot, you don't know.  You're not the last Cousland.  Fergus is alive.  He was scouting in the Wilds, and I think, maybe got injured, but...actually, I don't know the details, but he survived.  In the...performance, he made it to Denerim after the Archdemon was defeated, and became Teyrn of Highever."

 "Truly?  Maker, you don't know how happy I am to hear that!"

 "Maybe we can try to find him sooner, since we know.  Not that I have any idea where he is, or anything.  If I end up disappearing again, I'll try to find out."

 Then we talked about Ostagar - the Wilds trip, the Joining, Daveth and Ser Jory.  The fight to reach the top of the tower of Ishal.  The ogre.  Then being overrun by darkspawn and waking up in Flemeth's hut.  Thinking, at least for a while, that he and Alistair were alone against the Blight.

 We talked a bit about his joining the Grey Wardens.  I wondered if he was bitter to be forced to join.  It turned out he'd been chafing at the bit for a while wanting to get out of the castle, and had argued with his father over not being allowed to join the Grey Wardens, especially after learning that Ser Gilmore was being recruited.  I made a mental note to learn more about Ser Gilmore eventually.  Aedan was devastated that his family had been murdered, of course, but felt gratitude, if anything, to Duncan for recruiting him.  Even more so once I told him about Fergus.  I was glad - we didn't need a reluctant hero, constantly fighting with Duncan. 

 Talking to Aedan was...easy.  I wasn't awkward, like I was around Alistair.  Not that Aedan wasn't good looking, but I just couldn't see him like that.  He wasn't looking at me like that, the way Theron did, either.  It was like we had been friends forever.  By the time we got back to the camp, we were teasing each other and laughing.  I could still see the sorrow in his eyes, but it seemed less heavy, somehow.  Maybe it was just knowing there was one less soul to haunt him.

 Once in camp, Leliana grabbed me and dragged me off into the woods also.  I gave Alistair an apologetic smile as I was pulled away.  She lead me deeper into the woods than Aedan had, and spent a few minutes scouting around before deciding we were truly alone.  I didn't see the black bird that was Morrigan, so I figured we were safe.

 "You might have warned me."

 "Uh...what?"

 "The King of Ferelden?"

 "Uh, well.  Yeah.  I wasn't allowed to talk about that.  I'm sure you can understand why."

 "You said you trust all of us.  Did you include me in that by mistake?"

 "No, Leliana.  In fact, I probably trust you more than most.  But it wasn't my secret to tell."

 "That's no excuse."

 "So you'd agree that it would be fair for me to inform the group that you are a bard, you started out as a spy in Orlais, and that Marjolaine, your mentor and ex-lover, is currently in Denerim, arranging to ambush us with the intent of getting you killed, just because I trust them?  Leliana.  I trust you.  They don't, yet.  They barely trust me.  And spilling secrets isn't going to improve that situation."  She stared at me for a moment, then looked away, face flushing slightly.

 "It would seem that again, you're the rational one in this little group.  However did we manage, in the performance you described, without you to make us see sense?"

 "Aedan.  He's clever."

 "Hmm.  So...you know about Marjolaine?"

 "Yes.  I know she trained you, used you, and then betrayed you.  You ran away to the Chantry to get away from that life.  But she will come after you, when you leave the Chantry.  She'll think this was some sort of strategy."

 "And does she kill me?"

 "No.  But she won't stop until you make her, Leliana.  At home, I'm sort of a pacifist.  I don't know how to fight.  It feels really strange to say this, but...when you get the chance, I urge you not to show mercy.  You'll regret it."

 "I see."

 "So will you come with us, Leliana?  Have I convinced you?"

 "I haven't decided yet.  I need to think, to pray.  I will, however, help your Aedan and Alistair in Lothering, at the very least."

 "Thank you."  I repressed the urge to hug her.  "Now, next time I disappear, if you're still with us...if I lend you a pair of scissors, will you fix Theron's and Tomas' hair?"

 "You do know how to tempt a girl!"  We laughed and headed back to camp.  Tomas was talking to Aedan, and Alistair sat looking awkward as Theron talked at him.  Morrigan was nowhere to be seen.  I rescued Alistair, giving Theron a smile.

 Alistair and I wandered through the now familiar woods, until he found us a fallen log to sit on.  He straddled it, facing me, and I sat, self-consciously, while he studied me.

 "For what it's worth, I believe you.  I'm not going to test you."

 I was unexpectedly thrilled, and had to fight the goofy smile that wanted to break out on my face.  "Why?"

 He thought about that for a bit.  "Duncan trusts you."

 "Don't.  Don't just trust me because he does.  I need you to, for yourself.  Please."

 "It's not just that.  It's also...I saw the battlefield, from the top of the tower, right before I blacked out.  I knew there was no way for anyone to survive that.  But somehow, you saved Duncan and Cailan.  To even have found them on the battlefield, you must have known the details of what would happen to them beforehand.  And any idiot can see you're not from around here.  You have strange mannerisms, strange clothes.  If it wasn't for you, I'd be alone.  I don't want to combat the Blight alone.  I'm..."

 I interrupted him.  "I know.  Not a leader.  If everyone let you lead, we'd all end up lost somewhere, and you'd discover you didn't have any pants."

 "Hey!  Just ‘cause you're some mysteriously omnipotent being from another world doesn't mean you get to steal my lines!" 

 "I sincerely apologise.  I can't promise not to do it ever again, though.  You've got some funny lines!"

 He went to smack me playfully, and I pretended to cower.

 "Not the face!  Not the face!"  He looked shocked for a second, and then cracked up once he confirmed I was joking.

 "So.  Thank you for believing in me, but...you still need to test me.  I know Tomas is going to question everyone later to see if I knew all their secrets.  You need to know what I know."

 He looked uncomfortable. I took pity on him.

 "Let me start.  You are Alistair Theirin.  Bastard son of King Maric Theirin.  Raised by Arl Eamon in Redcliffe, and everyone thought you were his bastard.  He married Isolde, an Orlesian woman with a really annoying voice, who made your life miserable until she convinced him to send you off to the Chantry to train as a templar at about age ten.  He always made sure you were aware that you had no claim to the throne, made you feel like you were nobody.  When he sent you to the Chantry, you got angry and threw your mother's amulet at the wall, where it smashed.  He tried to visit you at the Chantry, but you refused to see him, and still feel guilty about that.  You hated the Chantry, although you found that the discipline part of the training was actually ok.  You attended one Harrowing, and the mage became an abomination, and you watched someone kill her.  You were conscripted by Duncan before you took your vows, so you never got addicted to Lyrium.  One of your fellow recruits died during your Joining.

 "You tell everyone you were raised by wild dogs from the Anderfels who can fly and are devout Andrastians, and you always crack jokes to avoid discussing anything personal.  You like figurines, and cheese.  You think swooping is bad.  You're unreasonably afraid of being turned into a toad by Morrigan or her mother.  You probably called Morrigan a sneaky witch thief when you met her in the Wilds."  I sat back and grinned.

 Alistair just stared at me until I blushed and looked away.  "Did I miss anything?"

 "No, I, uh, think that pretty much covers it."

 "Then let me tell you some things you don't know.  For example, Eamon kept your mother's locket, and had it repaired.  It's in his desk in Redcliffe Castle.  You should also know that your father, Maric, actually loved you very much.  He made a promise to your mother, whom he also loved, to keep you away from court, because she knew he hated being the king and she didn't want all your choices taken away like that.  That's why he sent you to Redcliffe, though I doubt he knew how you’d be treated there.  Your mother wasn't a servant in Redcliffe, she was a Grey Warden.  And I think she might still be alive.  The half-sister you thought you had, actually isn't.  They picked the name of a convenient servant who had died in childbirth and told you she was your mother, making Goldanna your half-sister.  They lied. 

 "In the, uh, performance, during this Blight, it was just you and Aedan.  And despite your insistence that you couldn't lead, and that you were a nobody, you always kept Aedan on the high road, even when the temptation to cut corners and use the ends to justify the means was really strong.  You were the backbone of the group, the one everyone relied on, and you didn't even know it.

 "I also know that if Theron had died, Eamon would put you forward as the rightful heir to the throne.  I know you wouldn't have wanted to do it, that you hated the very thought of it.  But I also know that you actually are a much better leader, and a much better man than you believe yourself to be.  You could become an amazing King, ruling Ferelden better than Cailan or Maric ever did.  I don't want that for you - I think you should have the choice of what to do with your life, but you should know.  You are capable of much more than you think possible."

 Embarrassed at my appalling lack of subtlety, afraid that Alistair would look up and see the - inappropriate, Sierra - I reached over and squeezed his hand, then stood up and walked away before he could respond.

 Back at camp, I sat down beside Tomas, leaning against him for a brief moment, trying to recapture the feeling of safety I'd had the night before.  He smiled at me, his eyes knowing, and I cursed my bad acting skills again.

 After a few minutes Alistair came back into camp, and I avoided making eye contact.  Everyone gathered in the usual circle around the fire, including Morrigan, to discuss plans briefly before the three went into town.  We discussed what supplies they should try to buy, everyone adding ideas, including more backpacks, more water skins, poultices, tents, blankets or bedrolls, and commoner clothes for me.  Leliana and I compared sizes, briefly, and she thought she'd be able to help pick out some clothes that at least would be close to fitting.

 "There's someone in town that you need to talk to, also.  He needs to come with us.  It's going to take a bit of work to get it figured out, but I'm hoping we can impose on Leliana to intercede on our behalf with the Revered Mother."

 The bard looked at me, puzzled, but I watched as she figured it out.  She tried to hide a somewhat pleased half-smile.  "You mean to recruit the Qunari."  I nodded. 

 "Aedan and Alistair should speak with him first, I think, but unless they have some major objection, then yes."

 "Are you quite certain he can be trusted?"  I knew what she was asking me.  Did I really want a murderer joining our party?

 "I am.  He's a strange one, I'll give you that, but if they can secure his word, he will never break it."

 Tomas watched the exchange, confusion building.  I debated, but decided hiding the truth would cost me some of my hard-earned trust.  I'd just have to hope they saw the reasoning behind it.

 "There's a Qunari in a cage outside Lothering.  He murdered a family in a fit of, well, temporary insanity.  There was a reason for it, but not one that makes sense to anyone but a Qunari.  He was so ashamed that he allowed himself to be captured and caged.  He could escape, if he tried, but he won't, because he thinks that a gruesome death at the hands of the darkspawn will be his atonement.  If offered a chance for redemption, and if he gives his word to help defend against the Blight, he'll be very handy to have around."  I saw a couple of people mouth the word 'handy', and blushed.  "He's a pretty amazing warrior.  He isn't a danger to any of us, and while I don't think any of us will consider him a friend, he will be helpful.  If Leliana can convince the Revered Mother to let him out, that is."

 "I can.  I will.  I think that's an admirable idea.  Everyone deserves a second chance."

 "How do we know he won't murder us in our sleep?"  I turned to Alistair.

 "I'd say 'trust me', but that feels a little disingenuous right now.  That's why I want you and Aedan to talk to him first.  If you're not convinced, don't let him out.  But let me just add this - he's been in that cage for three weeks without food or water.  He's still alive.  And he could have left at any time if he decided to.  But the decision is up to you guys."

 Leliana took the lead walking to Lothering, with Prince trotting at her side.  Aedan and Alistair were following along behind.  Probably staring at Leliana's ass.  I saw Theron and Tomas both shooting longing glances at them, and thought perhaps I'd accidentally voiced my thought out loud.  I realised, though, that they were both probably just sick of being stuck in camp.  Boohoo.  I sighed and scratched my head, pulling my hair out of the complicated 'do it had been in since pretending to be a noblewoman yesterday.  I felt sweaty and sticky, and my hair was hanging together in clumps.  I had an idea.

 "Hey, Morrigan?"  The witch still sat by the fire, everyone having ignored her.  Again.  She looked up, her expression hard to read.  "I'm desperate to wash up.  I am going to go down to the stream.  Care to accompany me?  We can talk on the way."  She looked skeptical, so I added bait.  "I've got soap."  Her eyes lit up, and she practically sprang up to grab her pack and follow me.

 I turned to Theron and Tomas, who were watching the witch with wary expressions.  "Now, you two be good boys and stay here, yes?  I'd hate for you to be accidentally turned into a toad for spying on us, brother."  I ruffled Theron's hair, and he squawked indignantly.  Morrigan laughed and followed me into the woods.

 By unspoken agreement, we found the stream and washed up first.  The water was cold, but I didn't care.  I stripped and laid down in the middle of the stream.  Morrigan stared at me, averting her eyes when she saw me noticing.  She crouched by the side of the stream and surreptitiously washed without baring anything.  Seriously?  We're both girls.  Whatever.  I'm not lessening my enjoyment of this because of modesty.  I soaped myself off, sitting up to scrub my hair with the bar.  I knew it would make it impossibly tangled, but I didn't care.  I'd take clean and messy over dirty any day. 

 Finally satisfied, I stood, shivering, and it occurred to me I didn't have a towel.  I briefly wondered if there was a way to bring my huge terrycloth bath set from home next time I went back.  I shook off, sort of like Prince, and pulled my clean, now dry panties from my pack, slipping into them and then my clothes while still damp.  I grumbled, determined to at least bring a spare bra and an extra t-shirt next time.  I washed the dirty panties, tucking them away, and finally felt human again, if cold.  I put my jacket back on, wishing I'd thought to bring my cloak.  I huddled into a ball and pulled out my comb, starting to work out the tangles while I watched Morrigan bend over and somehow wash her own hair without getting her clothes wet.  She finished without tangles in her own long black hair.  Bitch.

 Seeing me huddling, still shivering, she rolled her eyes.  "’Tis a good thing you aren't from here.  I can only assume you would not have survived long in this world."  She turned, spying a nearby boulder, and muttered something under her breath, finally waving her hand in its general direction.  A streak of fire flashed from her fingers, splattering against the rock.  "There.  I suppose the others would be much more difficult to manage if I let you freeze to death."

 I smiled brilliantly at her and scrambled to my feet, approaching the boulder.  The heat rolled off it in waves, and I held my hands out, luxuriating in feeling warm.  I cleared a small space, close enough to be warm but far enough not to get burnt.  Morrigan and I both sank down onto the ground, backs to the radiant stone, letting our damp hair dry.

 I broke the silence first.  "So.  We should talk."

 "We should."  I sat, still pulling snarls out of my hair, waiting for her to begin testing me. 

 "Are you going to ask me questions, then?"

 "Indeed not!"

 "Uh...why not?"

 "A skilled charlatan can determine the answers based on the questions asked.  For it to be a true test, you must also provide the questions."

 "Uh, okay.  Um, well, let me see.  You were raised in the Wilds by Flemeth, who is your mother.  Or at least, she raised you; I'm not sure if she's blood related.  She is a powerful sorceress, a shapechanger who can take on the form of a dragon.  She is an abomination, having made a deal with a demon to keep her alive, or so the story goes.  She liked to use you as bait for templars who got too close when you were a child.  You learned shapechanging from her, and as I recall, can assume the form of a giant spider, or I think a bear...and apparently a bird, from what I saw earlier.

 "You once stole a mirror from a noblewoman you encountered in the Wilds.  When Flemeth discovered it, she smashed it to pieces.  You'd give almost anything to get your hands on Flemeth's grimoire.  And the reason Flemeth sent you with the Grey Wardens, the reason I think she even saved them, was so that you could perform a blood magic ritual with one of them, before the final battle, impregnating you.  It would cause the Archdemon's essence to be drawn into the body of your unborn child, to be reborn as an untainted Old God, coincidentally saving the life of the Grey Warden who strikes the killing blow.

 "You hate Circle mages, believing that they have enslaved themselves willingly, and have nothing but contempt for the Chantry.  You like pretty jewelry, though you will never admit it.  You act like you hate Alistair and think he's stupid, but I don't actually think that's true.  I think you just enjoy baiting him."

 "I do enjoy baiting him, 'tis true, but his lack of intelligence isn't in question, as far as I can tell."  I rolled my eyes, and Morrigan actually appeared to smile.

 "So.  How did I do?  Am I a charlatan?  A Fade spirit?  Just plain crazy?  What do you think?"

 "You definitely know things that you should have no way of knowing, so while I cannot fathom how you could possibly be what you claim, I cannot offer another explanation."

 "I'm going to take that as acceptance, I think."

 "For now."  Morrigan paused.  "So...may I ask what you plan to do with your information?"

 "You're wondering if I will prevent you from performing the ritual with Aedan or Alistair?"

 "I am."

 "I won't.  I don't think it's my decision to make, anyway.  However, with, uh, Tomas around, I think you will have a much harder time getting agreement."

 "Foolish.  Why would he not accept such a small sacrifice to preserve his own life?"

 Aha.  She doesn't know everything about Wardens.  Interesting.  "All I will say is that sometimes, there are worse things than death, for a Grey Warden."  Morrigan scoffed, but seemed to realise she would get no more out of me on the subject.

 Once both of us had dry hair, we returned to camp.  Well, I did.  Morrigan came partway, and then hesitated.

 "You're going to change shape and spend the rest of the day watching us in animal form, aren't you?"

 "I...prefer that, yes."

 "Just...know that you are welcome, if you decide to join us."

 Morrigan stared at me, an unfathomable expression on her face.  "I will keep that in mind."

 Leaving her to her privacy, I went back to camp alone.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten: New Arrivals

 I found Theron and Tomas, both stripped to the waist, sparring with sticks instead of swords. I could see that Tomas was clearly the better swordsman, despite Theron's relative youth and impressive physique, but he was holding himself back to avoid humiliating Theron outright. I sat down nearby to watch, and Tomas took the opportunity to use it as a teaching moment. Both men backed off in intensity, and Tomas took the time to announce what they were doing, pointing out footwork, sword strokes, and parries. I found the half-naked thing distracting, but persevered through it to pay attention to what mattered. I realised I should have done some training with them before I took my bath in the stream, but now clean and dry, I just couldn't bring myself to get sweaty again. I finally drowsed, sitting in the bright sun, not waking until Theron ran by and pushed me over to land on my side on the ground. He took off towards the stream, howling in laughter as I cursed.

 Tomas sat across from me, having thrown his shirt on, sweat still running down his brow and staining the cloth. He looked amused, and as I picked myself up off the ground I realised that, not only was my hair still a mess but I probably now had dirt and leaves on my face. I sighed and brushed myself off, returning to trying to comb out the knots in my hair. Several curses and a couple of small bald spots later, Tomas grabbed my hand, stopping me from attacking the next tangle.

 "I had a sister, once. Before..." He sighed, and I nodded understanding. Before he ended up on the street, before he was recruited. She was most likely dead. "She had curly hair. She and my mother used to fight over combing out her hair all the time. She'd end up bawling, half bald, every time she washed her hair. Until I realised I could help." He prodded me until I turned and sat with my back to him, and he knelt behind me. I closed my eyes, humming in pleasure as he used his deft fingers to pick out the snarls, smoothing my waves. There was something so intimate, so familiar in that touch, I found myself longing for...something. A family perhaps? I wasn't sure, but I wasn't going to complain.

 We were both still sitting like that when Aedan and Alistair returned. Tomas stopped right away, and the absence left me feeling lonely. I've lived alone for ten years, and suddenly now I feel lonely in the middle of a group? Ridiculous. I immediately noticed that Leliana and Sten weren't with them. I worried about that, wondered what would happen if we failed to recruit the important party members from the game. Not for the first time, I wondered if Duncan and Cailan surviving would have far more unintended consequences than I imagined, wondered if I would regret whatever it was that saved them in the end. Too late now, and anyway I wouldn't have been able to live with myself had I not tried. I looked at Alistair's peaceful smile when his gaze focused on Tomas, and knew I'd do it all over again to avoid seeing his face haunted like it was in the game.

 I stood, walking over to see Aedan while Alistair spoke to Tomas quietly.

 "Where's Leliana?"

 "Getting Sten. She tried, but the Revered Mother wouldn't let him go. She decided to sneak over there herself after dark and bring him out, but they'll have to go around the outside of town to get him here safely. Alistair and I went to the army camp and made a scene to provide a distraction."

 "Did you dress him up pretty and make him dance the Remigold?"

 "I heard that! Stop stealing my lines." Aedan and I both giggled ourselves breathless while Alistair gave me a dirty look and everyone else watched, puzzled. Apparently they'd had that conversation in Ostagar, just like I had in the game. Surreal. But funny.

 "Alright, what did you do instead?"

 "Actually we just introduced ourselves. Bryland's a good man, and so are his lieutenants. When he learned who we were, who I am, he made a big fuss and paraded us around the army camp. He gave us most of the supplies we were looking for, for free. I made a speech about not allowing Loghain to get away with his betrayal and ending the Blight, and everyone came to watch. Even the templars."

 Tomas walked up. "You advertised your presence?"

 "Yeah, well...we needed a distraction. And I knew we'd be safe with Bryland's men. Though I think we might want to move camp once Leliana gets here with the big guy. The reward for any Grey Warden, alive or dead, is at ten sovereigns."

 I was actually relieved to see Aedan taking control, even standing up to Tomas. I could see Tomas was taken slightly aback at the matter-of-fact attitude. I smiled at Aedan and nodded when I knew no one else was looking. He winked back.

 "Perhaps we should leave now. I will stay behind and lead our new companions to the campsite once they arrive?" Did he just ask Aedan for permission? Whoa. Aedan shook his head.

 "Good idea, but I'll be the one to stay behind. Prince can find you for me, or warn you if I get caught. And of the two of us, I'm the far more expendable, Tomas." I saw an expression flit across Tomas' face, one of regret and worry that belied his usually calm demeanor. I knew that if something happened to either of the younger Grey Wardens, he'd never forgive himself. Still, he eventually nodded in agreement.

 All of us packed our supplies into the packs we had obtained. I changed into some simple peasant garb that they had acquired, impressed with Leliana's eye - it fit me almost perfectly. At least it's pants and shirt, not a dress. I tucked my Earth clothes into the top of my pack, with the other assorted oddities I had brought over, and then added a peasant dress that apparently Leliana had also found. Spoke too soon.

 Tomas snuffed the fire, covering it with dirt to hide it at least a little, scattering the remains of the burnt wood into the undergrowth. We left Aedan, who faded into the woods with the mabari, and Alistair lead the way, aiming to swing wide around Lothering and head north. Tomas came last, trying to obscure our trail. I watched him at first, having never spent much time in the woods. He made a few obvious false trails, doubling back to the group, and tried to ensure that any broken branches, boot prints and the like blended in. I recalled that a group of Lothering refugees at some point had ambushed our group for the bounty, and suddenly his efforts seemed far more important.

 After a few minutes, however, my pack started feeling heavier. I had never been a hiker and even this body didn’t have the strength and stamina of the rest. I struggled on with it, unwilling to admit weakness to these new yet familiar companions. Shortly, Alistair stopped for a minute, allowing us to rest. He walked over to me, without a word, took my pack, slung it on one shoulder and his own on the other, shot Tomas an incredulous, slightly dirty look, and took off walking again. I was grateful – and mortified – all at once.

 After an hour of walking, and a quick consultation with Tomas, Alistair chose a campsite. I volunteered to light a small fire with my Zippo, and Theron and Alistair wandered off to gather wood. Morrigan, as usual, was nowhere to be seen. Tomas sat near me, looking lost in thought. Once I had a blaze going, I joined him.

 "Thank you, Tomas."

 "For what, my lady?"

 "For allowing Aedan to take the lead, a little. For not over-riding his authority."

 "He is a clever lad. He knows what he's doing, and he's handling everything better than the rest of us put together. I may be senior here, but I can recognise competence when I see it. I'm not about to get in the way of that." We shared a smile.

 "I worried he'd defer to you, that he wouldn't take charge and stand on his own feet the way I think he was meant to."

 "I don't think Aedan is particularly good at deferring to anyone, actually. It's one of the reasons I wanted to recruit him. Grey Wardens aren't army soldiers. They need to think for themselves. I'm more worried about Alistair, actually."

 "He will be fine, I think. He needs to believe that he's meant to follow for now, although he actually does make a good leader once he's got a bit more confidence. Aedan will lean on him, and show him respect, and he'll get it figured out."

 "You do love him, don't you." It wasn’t really a question.

 I blushed scarlet, thankful that dusk had come to hide the beacon that was my face, at least from a distance. "How could I? We've barely just met."

 "He's just met you. I don't think that's really the case for you."

 "I...I can't be in love, Tomas. It's not right. I don't know who I am, or why I'm here. I don't know if I'll be able to even stay here. I could get pulled back tomorrow and never return. I can't defend myself, I'd be a liability. I'm not a Grey Warden, I can't share that with him, and then when he gets his Calling... This isn't even what I really look like! I don't know where this body came from, but it isn't mine. I can't allow myself...it wouldn't be fair to him..." I trailed off, swallowing the lump in my throat, trying to suppress the tears I could feel gathering. I've cried more in the last few days than the last ten years. I hate tears.

 Tomas took my hand. "Perhaps he should have a say in what's fair to him, don't you think?" Squeezing my hand, he rose and started working on a tent. Stuffing my feelings back into the box I always kept them in, I joined him. Theron and Alistair wandered back, arms full of wood. Alistair quickly assembled a tent of his own, but Theron stared at the poles and canvas like they would bite him. From watching Tomas, I had a fair idea how they worked, so I joined him.

 "It's not rocket science, you know. Here. Let me show you."

 "What's rocket science?"

 "Uh. Hard to explain. But what I meant is that it isn't too complicated. The tent, I mean. I'll help." Together we managed to get the thing upright, laughing together at the slightly saggy roof and crooked overall result. "I think it will stand, though. I guess practice makes perfect." Alistair shot us a strange look, standing so close together and clearly enjoying ourselves. I flushed and excused myself, returning to Tomas' side.

 Tomas had assembled a couple more tents while Theron and I had struggled with his. He pointed to the one closest to the centre of camp, telling me that one was mine. I must have had an odd facial expression at that, because he immediately stopped what he was doing to take me by the shoulders. I felt at the verge of tears again.

 "What is it?"

 "I...I'm afraid to sleep alone. What if I disappear? What if I don't wake up? What if we get attacked in the night?"

 "I can make a bigger tent for you to share with Morrigan or Leliana if you'd prefer."

 "Morrigan would never agree to that. And Leliana doesn't trust me."

 "What are you suggesting?"

 "Can...can I sleep in your tent?" I felt like a small child. I'd never had parents I could crawl in bed with after a nightmare, but I'd certainly had younger foster-siblings end up in mine. I refused to make eye contact, waiting for the rejection. "It's probably not appropriate. I'm sorry. I will manage on my own. Sorry." I went to grab my pack and crawl into my small tent when the roof fell in. I glanced at Tomas in surprise, and he smiled at me.

 "I need the tent pole if I'm going to make a bigger one." Once complete, we both stowed our gear in the centre, bedrolls on opposite sides. "Tomorrow we work on your ability to defend yourself, again." I nodded, grateful.

 Alistair volunteered to cook with some of the rations they'd obtained. I rushed over to 'help', knowing his cooking was supposed to be dismal. We managed to agree on a soup to go with the dried rations, and Tomas volunteered to go try to catch some wild critter to add to the soup. I hoped he'd find more pheasant. I still didn't think I could bring myself to try rabbit. As I was fishing through the supplies, I was delighted to find a few spices. Some I recognised - oregano, rosemary - but there were several I couldn't place. I resolved to ask Leliana to teach me how to cook with them later, and made a mental note to bring some dried spices next time I ended up at home. Apparently they were expensive here.

 Tomas returned with a couple of pheasants and I breathed another sigh of relief. He plucked them and I roasted them before shredding the meat into the soup. The soup was bubbling and smelled delicious by the time Aedan showed up with Sten and Leliana in tow. Aedan stepped up behind me, sniffing appreciatively.

 "Ah, good - Alistair's legendary cooking skills must be well known. I'm glad you didn't let him poison us again, Sierra." Alistair groused at that and the two settled into a familiar routine of bickering and name calling. Sten and Leliana stood somewhat awkwardly, and I mentally cursed Aedan as I stood and performed the introductions between Sten and the rest of the group. He looked at me sharply when I announced his name/title without having to ask first.

 "Sten, meet everyone. I'm Sierra. Theron, there, is a warrior. Aedan, Alistair, and Tomas are Grey Wardens. I can't see Morrigan, but she's around somewhere. She's a mage. And you've met Leliana; she's a... uh... sister. In the Chantry."

 Sten shot another sharp look at Leliana, standing there now in leather armour, carrying a bow on her back and two wicked looking daggers in her belt. Leliana gave him her own stare, and shrugged, slowly, and he let the subject drop. I walked up to Leliana, grabbing her hand and drawing her closer to the fire, ostensibly to help me check the soup.

 "I'm so glad you decided to come. And thanks for rescuing Sten. I want to help against the Blight, but worry I've messed things up by changing events. Thank you." I gave her a warm smile, and she gave me a strange one.

 "You're sure about Sten? He's kind of...intimidating, no?"

 "I'm sure. He won't betray us. And he has honour, even if it is different than what we understand."

 "Do they have Qunari where you come from?"

 "Oh, no. Definitely not. No elves or dwarves, either. And no darkspawn. The only monsters where I'm from are people."

 Alistair sat down, holding his bowl out hopefully. "Is that better? Or worse?"

 "I'm inclined to think worse. At least when you see a hurlock, you know what to expect." We all chuckled, and I started serving soup. I gave the three Wardens and Sten all very large portions, and got a funny look from Leliana and Theron. I mouthed "just wait", and soon enough all of the non-wardens were watching the four men shoveling down their food as fast as they could swallow. Leliana levelled a look at me and wiggled her fingers in a gesture I took to mean 'explain'.

 "Sten's been in a cage for three weeks without food, and look at the size of him. He's bound to have a bigger appetite than us! As for the others, well...Grey Wardens get hungry. What can I say?" The soup and some of the dry bread was finished off, to Leliana's surprise. Afterwards I went to wash dishes a bit away from camp, and was quickly joined by Theron and Tomas. I giggled inside at the two of them jockeying for position beside me. When we headed back to camp, Aedan rolled his eyes in their direction and I just about burst out laughing. At least he seemed to treat me like a person instead of a very fragile woman. It was refreshing.

 Finally, all of us settled in a circle around the fire, Alistair asked the question I'd been waiting for since we'd met up with them.

 "So, we have all these treaties - mages, elves, dwarves. And then there's Arl Eamon, and our anonymous guest. Where do we go first?"

 All eyes turned to me – I gulped, suddenly confronted with six very serious faces except Sten's, and he glanced around, confused.

 "You are expecting this tiny woman to tell you all what to do? She tells me she cannot even defend herself. Why do you follow her?" I think everyone forgot Sten wasn't in on my secret.

 "I don't lead, Sten. I suggest, and the Wardens decide. And the reason is...call me a seer. I'm not saarebas,” Sten gave me a shocked look at using Qunari terms, “but I have some limited ability to know the future. They're asking me to figure out their best course of action based on the future.

 "I can't tell you where to go first. I can tell you what to expect at each place, but like I said, I don't know the timing of all these events. I don't know if some of the problems I anticipate can be avoided by doing things in a different order. So all I can do is tell you what might happen, and you will have to decide." They all nodded, somewhat disappointed.

 "So here's the basic scoop. In Redcliffe, Eamon is ill. He's been poisoned by an agent of Loghain's. Connor, it turns out, is a mage, and Isolde knew and kept it from everyone including Eamon. Connor made a deal with a demon to keep his father alive, and is now an abomination."

 I could feel Alistair radiating panic from beside me and I touched his knee gently. "Connor can be saved, and so can Eamon. Don't lose hope.

 "The demon has killed many of the castle inhabitants and is animating the dead to attack the town of Redcliffe. Bann Teagan has holed up in the Chantry with much of the town's population. So to get to Eamon, we have to battle the undead to save the town, sneak into Redcliffe Castle, kill a bunch more undead, confront Connor, and sedate him. Then a group of mages and a bunch of Lyrium from the Circle Tower can allow one mage to enter the Fade, kill the demon possessing Connor, and release the boy.

 "To save Eamon, we need the Urn of Sacred Ashes. It resides in a Tevinter ruin near a town named Haven, in the Frostback Mountains somewhere. To find Haven, we need to go to Denerim and go to a scholar's house to get a map. Once we find Haven, we have to fight a whole bunch of crazy cultists who think Andraste has been reborn as a high dragon. Once they're all dead, we may have to fight the high dragon, and then there's a gauntlet of tests to pass, and then you get the Ashes.

 "I know, Sten, that you're going to say it doesn't make sense to save this one man when we are facing a Blight, but we need Eamon to call a Landsmeet and get Loghain off the throne in order to rally the human forces to face the horde, never mind preventing a civil war. If it helps any, I know where your Asala is, and we can get it along the way." Sten jumped and stared, as though I was a ghost. I almost had to laugh.

 "So that's Redcliffe. If we want to save Connor, we need the Circle of Magi. Sadly, one of the mages, manipulated by Loghain, tried to stage a coup of sorts and when it didn't go his way, he and a few friends turned to blood magic. There are now abominations running rampant in the tower, and Uldred is turning more and more of the surviving mages. The templars sealed everyone in the tower and have requested permission to kill every living thing inside. If that happens, there's no way to save Connor without using blood magic and someone dying, and the mages won't be able to help us against the darkspawn. So we have to go in there, kill a bunch of demons and abominations, and save the First Enchanter and whichever other mages can be spared. One of them, a healer, will join us. Oh, and we will end up in the Fade, battling a sloth demon.

 "The Dalish have a werewolf problem that will have to be resolved before they can aid us. Orzammar recently lost their King and are without a clear successor. To get their aid, we'll have to make an expedition into the Deep Roads to find someone who can break the deadlock, and you'll be left with the choice of who to make King. One of the dwarves will stay with us also.

 "Along the way we'll be ambushed by an Antivan Crow who was hired by Loghain, and if we do it right he can be turned to help us. And there's a golem named Shale who can be convinced to aid us in a town named Honnleath, though first there's a traveling merchant somewhere holding her control rod. Oh, and Levi Dryden is around as well and will want us to go to Soldier's Peak, which is currently overrun with demons, and houses a 200 year-old Grey Warden mage who's been...experimenting with the Taint. He's worth a chat for sure.

 "Also, I'm not sure what can be done about it, but Loghain named Rendon Howe the Arl of Denerim, and he's currently torturing noblemen and templars alike, and will eventually get his hands on a Grey Warden named Riordan to torture as well. Oh, and Loghain is selling the elves from the Denerim Alienage into slavery to the Tevinters. Civil war is brewing because of his abuses and the rumours about him leaving the battle at Ostagar. And that's only going to be worse with more survivors and more rumours.

 "So...what do you guys want to do first?"

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven: Separate Ways

 I took a long, tepid drink from a water skin, mouth puckering from the slightly unpleasant iodine aftertaste, and then watched them all try to talk all at once. It would have been comical if it wasn't so serious. Leliana, Sten, and Morrigan wandered off, probably to let the others decide, since none of them had a vested interest in the order of stops.

 Finally the discussion settled into a normal back and forth between Aedan, Alistair, Theron, and Tomas. Alistair, unsurprisingly, wanted to go to Redcliffe first to rescue the town. Theron wanted to march on Denerim, to take Loghain head-on. Tomas wanted us to find somewhere safe for Theron to hide prior to any other consideration, which Theron strenuously objected to. Aedan tried to listen to each, and finally cleared his throat. To my continued surprise, everyone stopped and listened, including both Tomas and Theron.

 "So. Let's assume that Loghain learns that Theron didn't die at Ostagar. Do we feel convinced that we can deal with whatever he throws at us to keep the rest of Ferelden from finding out?" He looked around at the group, and not even Theron was able to nod. "Alright. Given that, and that we can't risk Theron dying anonymously in the Deep Roads or the Brecilian Forest, we need to find him somewhere to hide. I know hiding feels cowardly, but you have to admit that the rest of us cannot do what needs to be done if we are more worried about you than about doing our jobs. Agreed?" Theron's face coloured, and it was obvious he was remembering my heated words from the night before. Finally he nodded.

 "I think Redcliffe is possibly the best place to hide him. He can blend in as a Knight, and stay out of sight in the Castle. I think we can all agree that Eamon would protect him with his last breath. It won't be easy, but even if Eamon is still ill, he can stay there under Teagan's protection. I think the best thing for us to do is get Redcliffe safely. Can anyone come up with anything better?"

 Tomas spoke up. "I only have one thing to add to that. There are very few events that Sierra has related to us that we can hope to prevent. One of those is the capture of Riordan. The other is the slavery of elves in the Alienage. In addition to which, we require some information from Denerim in order to save Eamon. I believe that I am actually a liability to you, given how well-known I am around Ferelden. You have a much better chance of successfully hiding Theron if I am not with you. And I have enough stealth to sneak my way into Denerim, intercept Riordan, do whatever I can to safeguard the elves, and get the information you need to find Haven without being seen. I will send it to Redcliffe, and then perhaps try to rescue those I can from Howe's dungeons. If I am caught, you are still capable of safeguarding Theron and combating the Blight. Otherwise, I will return to you once I am done."

 Alistair looked upset at the prospect of losing his mentor and father-figure again, but no one could come up with a reasonable argument against his proposal.

 "Then I leave for Denerim at daybreak."

 I spoke up. "Then I will tell you what you will need to know in Denerim. On three conditions." Everyone stopped and stared at me. Shocked that I don’t go along with Duncan about everything, no matter what?

 "Name them, my lady." His resigned look said he knew what I would ask. I steeled myself against the guilt I knew I would feel later and pushed on.

 "First is that you try to find a way to send word to the Grey Wardens in Orlais. Tell them to come. Sneak across the border in ones and twos, because Loghain will have closed the border. Tell them to send as many non-Orlesians – or at least, ones who can hide their accents – as they can find, and not to send any other reinforcements. If Loghain hears of Chevaliers or other soldiers trying to cross, his paranoia will ramp up even more than it already is. We both know why we need as many Grey Wardens as possible."

 "Agreed."

 "The second is that you spend tonight telling Alistair and Aedan both all that they need to know in order to combat the Blight. They are not prepared as they should be, and I refuse to be the one to tell them."

 Tomas nodded, anguish clear on his face for a split second before his mask fell into place. Aedan and Alistair were too busy looking at each other in surprise to notice.

 "And third, you also spend a bit of time tonight alone with Alistair. You know why."

 This time Alistair aimed his surprised look at me. I refused to look away from Tomas until he slowly, reluctantly nodded. It’s about time someone who knew her tells him about his mother. "You have my word."

 I stood and stepped away from the fire. "Then I am going to our tent. If I am asleep, please wake me when you are done with the boys." Aedan and Alistair both shot me a dirty look for calling them boys. I grinned apologetically at Alistair, ruffled Aedan's hair in passing, and crawled into the tent Tomas had agreed to share with me. I noticed speculative glances from Theron and Leliana as I headed into the tent. I ignored them.

 Inside the tent I pulled out the scissors and razor I had brought with me specifically for Tomas' benefit. I had no idea what to do with myself after that, and I was cold again. I wrapped myself in the blankets from my bedroll, sitting upright, thoughts buzzing through my head on what all we were going to have to face over the next several months. Assuming that I stayed in Ferelden, that was. I felt completely overwhelmed at the odds we faced. Even though it had proved possible in the game, and apparently my being present had improved those odds by adding in some foreknowledge and keeping one extra Grey Warden alive, I knew now that the game ending wasn't set in stone. If I could somehow save some, I could also lose some. There were no guarantees that the story would have even a vaguely happy ending.

 I didn't think I'd be able to rest, between worry about the future of Ferelden and worry about disappearing in the night, but the exhaustion won out. I nodded off, sitting upright, chin on my chest. I woke some indeterminate time later when Tomas slipped into the tent. His mask was firmly in place, expression revealing nothing, until he closed the flaps of the tent. When he turned back, I could see despair, anguish, and raw fear on his face. I was a little bit awestruck that he allowed me to see his emotions when he kept such a brutally calm exterior for everyone else, but I was also glad that he did. Everyone needs someone to talk to, to trust.

 I crawled out of my pile of blankets, over to him, unsure quite what to do but wanting to offer some comfort. I put my hand on his shoulder, and he curled into it unexpectedly. I grabbed him with the other arm to try to keep my balance, and we ended up with his face buried in my chest, my arms around his neck, and he caught me as I started to topple over. I found myself sitting in his lap. I might have giggled if I couldn't feel him almost trembling in my arms.

 I held him, not saying anything, just stroking his hair and rubbing his shoulders where I could reach them. After several minutes, he pulled away and I tumbled awkwardly out of his lap.

 "He's angry." I knew without asking that he meant Alistair. He was whispering, and I answered in kind.

 "He will get over it."

 "How can you be so sure?"

 "I know him. He forgave Arl Eamon after treating him like a saddle sore all his childhood, unwanted but unavoidable, then after all that, sending him to the Chantry. He is hurt, but he will understand. You're his family now. You and Aedan, you're all he has. Just come back, and all will be well. I'm certain of it."

 "He will need you. Will you take care of him? I know you wish to avoid...entanglements, but he needs someone to look after him."

 "Of course. Can you imagine I would do otherwise?" A small smile quirked the corners of his lips, and he shook his head.

 "Hey, I need to ask you something. An opinion. In case, God forbid, you don't make it back." He nodded. "There is an...alternative. To a Grey Warden dying in order to kill the Archdemon." His eyes narrowed, and I couldn't decide if it was disbelief or anger that I'd not told him before. "Not my secret to tell, okay? But listen. There's a price. The price is a child, conceived on the eve before the battle, whose father is a Grey Warden. That child will be born with the untainted soul of the Old God. I have no idea what will happen to that child, or how it could impact the future. I can't guarantee the darkspawn won't find it and corrupt it, somehow start another Blight. I can't guarantee that whatever that child is won't be worse than the Blight. Or, it might just be a human being.

 "If the option is for either Aedan or Alistair to perform the ritual, or to let one of them die, what would you want me to recommend?"

 Tomas' shrewd eyes examined my face. "This is why you saved me. At Ostagar. So I could be the one to kill the Archdemon, not Aedan or Alistair."

 "I didn't save you. Even if I did, it would not be the only reason, by far. But one of them, yes."

 "Well..." He looked thoughtful, though still irritated. "I suppose that if there are no other Grey Wardens when that day arrives, then...I would want Aedan and Alistair to survive. And hopefully together they could deal with the consequences, should there be any." He looked somewhat ashamed, but I just drew a sigh of relief.

 "Now. Tell me about Denerim."

 I told him about Brother Genitivi, and the imposter Weylon. I told him what I could remember about Riordan's story - Howe offering him a place to stay, Riordan not realising his cover had been blown. About the supposed plague in the Alienage, right after the district was closed for a prolonged period due to the attack on the old Arl's son, and the Tevinters who were offering a supposed cure. About the nobles being tortured, and the templar in Lyrium withdrawal, and the elf who tried to defend his bride from the Arl's son, who was also in the dungeon. About the fake support meetings, the Crows who might stop trying to kill the Wardens if they completed some contracts for him.

 When I was done, I presented him with the scissors and disposable razor. He was not thrilled to lose his distinctive beard after already losing his long hair, but he allowed me to drag him outside where I trimmed the bristly hair, and he lathered as best he could with cold water and my bar of soap and then shaved the rest. He was amazed by the little razor and I sent it with him to keep him clean shaven at least for a while. Leliana heard us moving about, and spying my scissors, proceeded to cut his hair to give it a lot more style then the poor hack job I'd done with my dagger. He looked like an entirely different person and I was happy that no one would easily recognise him.

 Satisfied, we crawled into the tent. Tomas repacked for added stealth, refusing a tent, taking only a small amount of our combined coin, leaving the rest split between Aedan, Alistair, and my pack. We finally fell onto our bedrolls and I was asleep in seconds.

 ********

 I woke at home, on my bed, still dry and unsoiled. I cursed as my eyes opened and I realised where I was. Everyone would wake in the morning to find an empty tent, as Duncan planned to leave so early. Someone would end up carrying all of my stuff, including our tents. And what if they didn't find Bodahn and Sandal on the road? I groaned, knowing I was completely incapable of doing anything about it. I was still wearing what I had been when I left, despite having changed into commoner clothing in Ferelden. I gave myself a headache trying to wrap my mind around how that would work when I went back.

 I repeated my ablutions from the previous visit home, including shower. Despite being away for three days I didn't feel overly hungry, again. Once cleaned up and redressed, including an extra t-shirt, I forced myself to eat, made a list, called a cab, and headed to the nearest supermarket. I bought a package of dark brown hair dye, thinking critically of Cailan's noticeable blond head, some small bottles of shampoo and a detangling spray meant for kids. I also bought a few packets of spices that I knew how to use. Knowing we'd be down to eating nothing but meat either dried or fresh caught, I bought vitamin C tabs. I refuse to get scurvy along with everything else!

 I also bought several small empty notebooks and a package of small pens. I planned to write down as many details about the various locations as I could, so that I could leave them with Aedan in case I disappeared at an inconvenient time. Or in case at some point I got pulled home and couldn't return. I realised, for the first time, that I didn't want to come home. I'd rather be in Thedas. I'm going to need to have a t-shirt made for my new motto.

 At home I realised that the Swiss army knives I had ordered had arrived, and I tucked them into my pockets. I put the spices and hygiene products in Ziploc bags, added soap and more coin to my pockets, folded in a spare bra, and I was ready except for my notebooks. I kept them near me, and spent the next two days poring through the wiki, writing as fast as I could. I outlined the quests needed to accomplish our goals as well as those that were lucrative. I put in as many details as I could about the enemies they would face and the strategies that seemed to work for different situations. But the first several pages were an overall summary of the difficulties each area was having and the options they would have for resolving them.

 I had just finished Redcliffe and the Circle Tower when the dizziness hit me. I stuffed my pens and notebooks in my pockets and raced toward my room. I didn't make it. As I closed my eyes, lying on my living room floor, all I could think of was how stiff I was going to be when I woke up.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve: And if I die before I wake...

When I awoke, it was bright out. I was lying in a field, my overly full pockets bruising me. I heard a shout, and then the pounding of several pairs of feet running. The sun was in my eyes, and when someone's head suddenly blocked the glare I was left temporarily blind. I heard my name being called by a voice I recognised. And then something wet bathed my face.

 "Now I know why everyone says Ferelden smells like wet dog." I grimaced at Prince, who chuffed happily and licked me again.

 "Thank the Maker. We thought we had lost you." Strong arms grabbed my shoulders and lifted me bodily off the ground, holding me until I managed to find my legs under me. I blinked up at an enormous templar, and then realised that everyone else was standing there staring as well.

 "How long was I gone?"

 "A little more than two days. When we woke to find all your things still there, even your clothes, but you gone...we thought maybe you'd decided to follow Tomas to Denerim. We couldn't tell what happened."

 "Why would I follow Tomas to Denerim?" Alistair coughed, and I noticed Aedan rolling his eyes. Right, they all think we're lovers. "I mean, what possible good could that come to? I can't take care of myself. I would just get him killed." Leliana rescued me from my own awkwardness, surprising me with a hug.

 "I'm just glad you're back. Do you still have those scissors? I want to fix Theron's hair at some point."

She dragged me off, chatting about nothing, leaving the men open-mouthed in shock. Except for Sten, who just narrowed his eyes. I swear he thinks I'm a mage. If he even mentions a collar I'm going to bite his knees.

 Leliana led me onto the road, and I was delighted to see a cart approach with two dwarves driving it. The older of the two hopped down as he noticed Leliana wave at him.

 "You must be Lady Sierra! Welcome, welcome. When the Wardens mentioned they were expectin' someone, I never thought they meant in the middle of nowhere! Pardon me, my lady. Allow me to introduce myself. I'm Bodahn Feddic, and this 'ere's my son, Sandal. Say hello to the pretty lady, Sandal."

 "Hullo."

 Bodahn continued to chatter on, and I barely listened, knowing from the game most of what he’d say. I nodded in the right places, hoping he didn't need more of a response than that. I felt vaguely bad about it, but just couldn’t seem to concentrate on small talk. While he spoke, Leliana went rummaging through his wagon, finally pulling out my pack, as well as a bundle of what I realised were the commoner clothes she had picked for me in Lothering. I slipped behind the cart and Leliana watched out for me as I quickly changed my clothes, bundling my jeans and all my new pocket possessions into my pack. I strapped my dagger into place on my thigh, then stared at the sword for a while, realising eventually I needed a sheath unless I wanted to carry it in my hand for the rest of eternity. Perhaps carrying it will gain me some of that upper body strength. Worth a try.

 "It was really creepy going in to your tent to find your clothes laid out in your bedroll as though you were still sleeping, but you gone. And it's a good thing that Morrigan has been flying over us keeping an eye out or we never would have seen you in that field. I'd ask you to stop doing that, but I get the impression that asking you wouldn't help very much. Because if it were up to you, you probably wouldn't keep coming back, yes?"

 "You'd be partially right, Leliana. I wouldn't keep popping back and forth - I'd stay. You might try asking the Maker about it, because if he didn't do this, I can't imagine who else could have."

 Aedan came around the corner, talking at the same time as Leliana. "You'd stay? Whatever for?"

 I started feeling a bit defensive now. "Hey, I know I can't fight, so I'm not exactly helping in the combat department. But I'd like to think I'm not a total barnacle! I'm trying to be helpful."

 Aedan chuckled, mouthing the word 'barnacle', and I blushed. "It's a sea creature that likes to grow on the bottoms of boats. If you get enough of them, they create drag. They slow the boat, and you have to row harder or need stronger wind to get the same distance."

 Aedan patted my shoulder while Leliana grabbed me in yet another hug. "We didn't mean it like that, Sierra. We all missed you - even if you can't fight, your knowledge and your gadgets are incredibly useful. And you're the best cook among us, as far as I've seen! We just wondered why you would choose to be here when you could be at home, somewhere familiar and safe, with all your friends and family."

 "I...would rather not talk about it, guys. Please. Just know I'd rather be here with you than there. If I leave, it isn't on purpose." Leliana took my pack and stowed it back in Bodahn's cart, and we started walking again. Everyone seemed eager to hear what I'd been up to and what I brought with me this time. I demurred, not having even thought about bringing gifts or anything. I did, however, show off the dark hair dye. I pointed at Theron and told him we had an appointment the next time we found a suitable stream. He groaned, and everyone else laughed.

 I was able to keep up with the rest of the group walking, but was bone weary when we arrived at the next campsite. Bodahn mentioned he knew of a place with a hot spring, and I dragged Theron to it and proceeded to dye his hair. I left the dye in as long as I dared, and when it was done his hair was a nice, uniform, dark brown. Back in camp I found my scissors and Leliana cut it for him, keeping it shaggy and much longer than Aedan's or Alistair's, but again much more attractive than the mop I'd cut with my dagger. He was still good looking, but unrecognisable. It was perfect.

 Everyone took turns using the hot springs. Morrigan, Leliana and I went together, them bathing and me mostly just soaking my sore legs. They were both delighted with my bar of soap and I let them each have a small amount of shampoo. I used the detangling spray sparingly and found I could at least get my comb through my hair to put it up when we were done.

 I thanked Morrigan for scouting while we were on the move and for spotting me in the field. She acted indifferent, but it felt like she warmed up towards me a little bit. I'll take what I can get!

 We set up tents in no time, and ate dried meat and bread for supper. I sat by the fire, writing in my notebooks, what I could remember about the different areas I hadn't completed yet. Prince sat at my feet. Aedan made his rounds, even to Morrigan, talking and cajoling, getting everyone to open up a little bit. Just like I did in the game. Alistair went to sleep early, offering to take the late watch. Apparently they had decided that either Aedan or Alistair had to be awake at any given time so they could sense darkspawn. I decided to wait to talk to Aedan about how we had managed watch when Tomas needed rest. I didn't want to contradict him in front of everyone. So Aedan wandered off a little ways from the camp, and everyone else excused themselves and settled in to sleep.

 I stayed awake, scribbling in my notebooks by the fire. I knew it was just an excuse, knew I'd be exhausted in the morning, but I had developed some sort of fear of falling asleep alone in case I disappeared. I have no idea what I thought anyone could do if that happened, it was a completely irrational fear, but I couldn't help it. So I sat, and scribbled, and yawned, and eventually fell asleep, pen in hand, right where I sat.

 The next morning, when I opened my eyes, I was in my tent. I thought back, and vaguely recalled waking briefly as I was being lifted, falling asleep again before I even figured out who it was that picked me up. Someone had carried me into my tent and tucked me into bed. I was embarrassed, but also felt sort of warm and happy that one of my companions had taken care of me. I briefly wondered who it was, assuming it to be one of the guys, but decided that asking would be even more embarrassing.

 I got myself straightened out and crawled out of my tent. Prince was asleep in front of the flap, feet twitching in some sort of doggy dream. I grinned. Alistair was sitting over a pot on the fire, but everyone else must still have been sleeping. I slowly rose, stretching out my stiff extremities, and made my way over to huddle beside Alistair, as close to the fire as I could get. He smiled and handed me a bowl of something that resembled porridge. I wasn't a fan, but it was warm at least, so I ate. We sat quietly together until the rest of the camp stirred, got fed, and we all packed up to head out.

 The next few days were all filled with the same sort of monotony. Get up, eat porridge, walk, eat while walking, walk more. Finally collapse, set up tents, eat something else, and then get knocked over and smacked, over and over, by Aedan, or Theron, or Alistair, under the guise of teaching me. I'd never been so bruised in my whole life. Between Leliana and Aedan we were able to have fresh meat almost every night, and they seemed to be engaged in a friendly competition to outdo the other. We started drying some of the extra meat to replenish our rations. I tried rabbit, and didn't vomit. Small victories. A couple of times, I didn't fall over while sparring. Occasionally Bodahn would find us campsites he knew, with streams or swimming holes or hot springs we could wash in, other times we'd find a clearing just out of sight of the road. I suggested my plan that non-Grey Wardens could sit watch as long as we woke one of them every two hours or so, and Aedan and Alistair started looking better rested.

 I spent a lot of my walking time with Aedan. He was sweet and funny, and despite being good looking and flirtatious, I still found him totally non-threatening. He didn’t give me the celebrity jitters the way Tomas and Theron and Alistair and Leliana did, since he was sort-of me. And it had the added benefit of keeping Theron away a bit. Theron and Aedan had developed a dislike for each other that I couldn't figure out, and I worried it had something to do with me. Theron had stopped actively trying to court me after our conversation, but the way he looked at me still didn't feel brotherly. I noticed Leliana didn't seem to spend much time with him either, after one day where he walked with her for most of the day, and I wondered if maybe he looked at all women like that.

 Aedan asked me a lot of questions about home. Some I answered easily - explaining the difference between science and magic, seeing a healer or seeing a doctor, what sort of work I did - but some I sidestepped. I didn't want to talk about my family (or lack of one), or what was happening to my body back at home. I tried not to even think about the latter - when I did I started to panic about how long I'd been in Thedas, imagining my body wasting away for lack of food, or going into kidney failure from muscle breakdown from lying in my living room for days on end. I'd once read an article about that happening to someone who hit their head and was unconscious for days before being found. Sometimes reading a lot is a bad thing. I ruthlessly suppressed the fear of what would happen if my body at home died. I couldn't change it, so avoidance seemed to be the key to keeping my sanity.

 We talked about his home life prior to becoming a Grey Warden. It seemed like telling me stories about the good times helped him cope with all he had lost. He would tell stories of pranks he and Fergus played on each other, or adventures the two of them had. He told me that he and Fergus had actually been the ones to discover the bolt hole in the pantry through which he and Duncan escaped when Howe attacked. He mentioned Ser Gilmore a few times, but talking about the knight was obviously painful for him. I assumed that perhaps they'd been lovers, but didn't have the heart to ask.

 We spent some time trying to compare calendars between home and Thedas. The names of the months didn't line up, but otherwise it wasn't a bad comparison. We counted it out, and realised that, as best we could tell, Aedan and I shared a birthday. We were the same exact age, down to the day. Somehow that just cemented things for us, and I started thinking of him as actually being my brother, not just being 'like a brother'. It was an odd feeling, to think of myself as part of a family.

 I spent a bit of time with Leliana, but the bard was still play-acting her girly, ditzy Chantry sister role, and it felt too fake. I knew it wouldn't last, and strongly suspected I'd like her better when she reintegrated the fiercer aspect of her personality. Sten almost never spoke to me, although he seemed to tolerate me walking quietly by his side. I think he might even have been a bit intrigued that I was the only person who didn't pester him to explain aspects of Qunari culture. He was skeptical that I knew anything about his sword, Asala, but I wasn't worried. I really wanted Aedan to take credit for it anyway.

 Morrigan almost never travelled with us, preferring to spend her days flying above us in bird form. After some initial shock, it seemed everyone had accepted her shapechanging abilities and we now relied on them heavily to scout ahead. I did spend a fair bit of time talking with her in the evenings, though. Aedan made the effort, but none of the rest of the party seemed to bother getting to know the beautiful witch, and that bothered me. I was surprised that, once you could get past the prickly exterior, she was actually quite funny, in a sarcastic way, and she made fun of Alistair a lot less than I recalled her doing in the game. I was undecided whether the game just played that aspect up for entertainment value, or whether she had toned it down after I told her I knew that she didn't dislike him as much as she let on. I decided that it didn't matter which, since Alistair was being left alone, and the two of them could mostly stand spending time together without acting like children.

 I did find myself avoiding Alistair as we travelled. As I got more and more comfortable talking with Aedan, I got less and less so with the enormous templar. It wasn't that he was unkind, or disrespectful, or anything else bad. It was actually quite the opposite - he was so sweet, and thoughtful, and kind, and good looking, that I found myself awkward around him, stuttering, forgetting what I was saying, getting caught staring instead of listening. I had given numerous reasons to Tomas why we couldn't ever be together, and I meant them, but being around him made it hard to keep my resolve. So I avoided him. I tried to be subtle in my avoidance, but obviously didn't entirely succeed, because I found Aedan frequently giving me sympathetic looks when I switched between groups of companions.

 And each night it was the same. I'd stay awake, long after everyone else went to sleep, avoiding my lonely tent. I'd sit and scribble in my notebooks by the fire, or talk to whoever was on watch. I fell asleep on more than a few shoulders, slept on Prince a few times, finally being shaken awake and made to go to bed, and I woke up covered in a blanket by the fire or having been carried into my tent more than once. I became more and more exhausted as the days wore on, until finally one day Aedan insisted I sit on Bodahn's cart instead of walking. He tried to be kind about it, but I knew I was slowing them down. I agreed without argument and made a space for myself among all our gear on the cart. It wasn't comfortable, but I was so tired that eventually I fell asleep.

 ********

 When I woke, I was far less uncomfortable than I had been while crammed onto the cart, and I wondered if someone had picked me up and put me in my tent or something. But as details flooded in, I realised I was in a bed, not on a bedroll, and I was wearing...not a lot. I opened my eyes to the tiled, ugly, industrial ceiling of a hospital room. I was wearing one of those horrible gowns, there was an IV in my arm...and this time, a catheter. Wonderful.

 I rolled to the side to push the button that raised the head of the bed, and as I sat up I realised I was in a large room with multiple other beds, all occupied. Most of my room-mates were in worse shape than me - several had breathing tubes, in addition to other unidentified wires and tubes snaking out from under the blankets. All of them had large, complicated, noisy monitors running, I assumed to keep track of heart beats and breaths and the like. I looked over and realised that I was also connected to monitors, although I didn't seem to have any tubes or anything I couldn't explain. As I struggled to sit up, the little thingy attached to my finger fell off, and the monitor began to beep.

 A couple of nurses bolted into the room, I assumed because of the noise, but when they saw me awake, one changed directions to go call the doctor. The other came over, trying to hide the shock and concern on her face behind a professional mask as she checked my monitors, took a blood pressure, and examined my IV site and checked my catheter bag, which was almost empty.

 "What day is it?" She told me, and I did the math - I'd been in Thedas for almost two weeks. I was continually amazed that the days lined up evenly like that. "How did I get here?"

 She told me that someone had gone to my door, she didn't know who, and when I didn't answer they peeked in my window and saw me lying face down on the floor. They called 911, and the ambulance brought me in. I'd apparently only been in hospital seven days, so I must have spent the first six on the floor.

 Just then the doctor arrived, the same one I'd seen the last time. The one I had told about my dreams. His face was drawn, and he looked tired. I tried to be cheerful, but the look on his face was grim.

 "What's up, doc?"

 "Hi Sierra. It's good to see you awake." He waved off the nurse, and she left us alone.

 "You have a truly terrible poker face, doc, anyone ever told you that?" He tried to smile and failed.

 "So I've heard. I won't lie to you. You have me worried."

 "What's happening? Was I in kidney failure from laying on the floor for so long? Is something else wrong?" He looked surprised at the kidney question, but dismissed all my guesses with the wave of a hand.

 "No, no. Nothing is exactly wrong. It's like I told you before - your body is completely fine, but your mind is just...gone. No brain activity, flatline EEG. And this time you were out for seven days!"

 "Thirteen, actually. I think I must have been laying on the floor a while when they found me."

 He frowned. "That can't be. They didn't mention anything about you having...uh..."

 "Wet myself? Yeah, it would seem I don't do that. It's not the first time. I've had a couple of other long blackouts since we last met, and I didn't then either."

 "But you weren't dehydrated, or malnourished, and like you asked, you weren't in kidney failure. You must be misremembering." I shrugged. Medical explanation or not, I knew it had been two weeks. "Have you been dreaming again?"

 "Yep. It's like I'm living two lives. I remember both, but they're separate. That one is sort of medieval. The number of days I'm unconscious even line up with the number of days I spend there."   He shook his head, slowly, obviously confused.

 "Well, let me tell you this. You're not going home any time soon. I want you here for observation at the very least."

 "Can I have my own stuff? Can I visit my own house to get it? And can I wear my own clothes? This hospital gown is fashionable, but I'd really rather be in jeans." I'd really like to avoid waking in Thedas wearing only a hospital gown. Oh, damn, I just jinxed myself.

 He nodded. "The nurses can help make arrangements. You'll probably be moved to a different room. The ICU is no place for someone who's awake."

 "Thanks, doc."

 He was right about being moved - half an hour after he left, they had me in a semi-private room, catheter out, and had found me my clothes from when I'd been admitted. I put them on, at least relieved that they would be better than the gown. The nurses looked at me strange when I put on the extra t-shirt, the jacket, and the boots. I shrugged.

 I overheard a conversation between the doctor and some nurses. Apparently, the entire time I'd been out, my catheter had drained exactly how much fluid they had given me by IV, no more and no less. Which is evidently not normal. And when you don't eat, something weird is supposed to happen to the potassium levels in your blood, but despite thirteen days of not being fed, it didn't happen to me. They were debating whether I needed a feeding tube and permanent IV lines for the next time I blacked out. The protocols said yes, but my apparently strange responses indicated that somehow, my body didn't require that. I finally stepped in, politely refusing all of the procedures unless my medical condition was deteriorating during my next blackout. It wondered if, as long as my body in Thedas was being fed and allowed to manage its own issues - like peeing - my body at home would just continue on. I briefly wondered how many papers would be written about that. I tried very hard not to think about what would happen if my body in Thedas didn't stay healthy.

 I wasn't allowed to go home, but I managed to get hold of my landlady, a sweet older woman who agreed to go to my place the next morning and call me from there, and bring me anything I asked for. I got her to bring my laptop, my purse, a large bag with personal hygiene products like soap and shampoo, a bunch of clothes, and my remaining box of coin. She didn't even question why I wanted multiple pairs of socks, an extra pair of boots, and an extra jacket.

 I showered and got cleaned up, dressing again in heavy clothing once my landlady had come and gone, putting more coin, shampoo, and soap in my pockets, and then had nothing to do. I read on the wiki, refreshing my memory so I could write more in my notebooks when I got back. I slept, and ate, and chatted with the nurses, cleaning staff, and anyone else I could find. Apparently my fear of sleep only existed when I was in Thedas. I dealt with my insurance company, made sure every bill I had was set to be automatically deducted from my account, and got a Legal Will kit and information about enduring Power of Attorney from the hospital's social worker. And the whole time I was just entirely frustrated wondering what was happening in Thedas. It was only one day on Earth, but it dragged on for what felt like forever.

 The morning of the second day, I was walking around the hospital ward, pacing really, when the dizziness hit. I sagged onto a nearby unoccupied wheelchair, reflecting that at least this time, I didn't have to worry about what would happen to my body while I was gone.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen: Laying Groundwork

 When I woke, I was lying in front of the fire, surrounded by familiar tents. Alistair, on watch, shouted in surprise, and my new companions came pouring out of their tents. I expected suspicion or weirdness, showing up in the middle of them like this, but all I got were relieved smiles and some teasing about yet again wearing my strange Earth clothes.

 The clothes thing was starting to weird me out. Somehow Ferelden clothing stayed here, but Earth clothing transferred over? What the hell? I shrugged. Nothing I could do about it.

 Leliana and Aedan hugged me, and Theron attempted to, which was awkward. Sten ignored me, but I thought I saw a smile when he thought no one was looking. Alistair smiled and clapped me on the shoulder, almost knocking me over. Morrigan sniffed, but managed to somehow look not totally unhappy. Bodahn smiled broadly and welcomed me back, though where he thought I'd gone was anyone's guess. Sandal seemed unfazed, muttering his usual "enchantment?" and we all chuckled.

 We decided to break camp early, since everyone was awake anyway. Aedan figured we were just over a day's march from Redcliffe. I changed into my local clothing, while everyone else got ready. We walked, and I carried my sword as usual. Having rested well while at home, I was actually energetic, and spent most of the day teasing everyone. At one point Leliana pulled me aside, walking where the rest of the party couldn't see.

 "Here. I want you to have this." She handed me a small circular object, attached by a loop onto a leather tie. I realised it was a necklace with the symbol of Andraste on it. The stone was smooth with wear, the symbol slightly faded. I tried to refuse, but she interrupted me.

 "I know you're not an Andrastian. You don't believe in the Maker. I'm not giving this to you as a religious symbol. I'm giving it to you because...I hate it when you disappear, and it's only happened twice, so far. I hate wondering if you disappeared, or just left us. I hate feeling like we're leaving you behind when we keep going without you. What if you were kidnapped? Caught by darkspawn or bandits or...and we just left you, because we assumed you disappeared?

 "I want you to wear it. I want you to promise that you will never leave your tent without this on. I assume if you disappear right in front of someone's eyes, it won't bother me. But if you promise me always to take it off when you sleep, and never to get up without putting it back on, at least then I'll know. If this is left behind, you disappeared, you didn't choose to leave us. If you aren't there and neither is this, we need to look for you. It lets me figure out when to worry, and when to just assume you went home.

 "Promise me?"

 I nodded, touched beyond belief at the gesture from the bard. It hinted that her fears and mine weren't so very different, made me feel slightly less insane for hating to go to sleep like I did. I put the token around my neck, tucking it out of sight, and hugged her gratefully. She seemed to understand that I didn't have the words.

 That night we camped a couple of hours outside of Redcliffe. Everyone was on edge, with armour being polished, weapons sharpened, and no one talking much. Aedan showed me how to sharpen my thin sword and the dagger strapped to my leg, and then I spent some time reminding everyone what we would face. I quietly encouraged Alistair to have his little parentage discussion with Aedan now, rather than wait, and he grimaced but complied. It seemed like everyone else remained unaware, though how they could with Theron sitting right there was beyond me. Even with the different haircut and the bottle-brown disguise, the resemblance between Theron and Alistair was uncanny.

 The plan was relatively simple - they would all aid the townsfolk in preparing for the battle, and then Theron and I would wait in the Chantry during the fight. Theron wasn't pleased, and frankly neither was I, but we all knew it was necessary. We decided that I would be 'Lady Sierra' again, and could therefore claim Theron as my personal bodyguard to explain why he wasn't fighting. I thought letting Teagan know Theron's actual identity would be fine, but Aedan wanted to wait until we had cleared the castle and sedated Connor. And we didn't need anyone else in town knowing, so we all agreed.

 I got a quick lesson from Aedan, with comments thrown in by Theron, on how to address nobility assuming I was truly the daughter of some unknown minor lord. The King, obviously enough, was 'your majesty' or sire. No 'your highness' in Ferelden. A Teyrn or an Arl was 'your Grace' to someone unfamiliar; everyone underneath that was 'my lord'.

 I was sitting by the fire, after everyone had finally crawled off to their tents except Sten who was on watch, when Aedan approached me. He started with a few pleasantries, but I could tell he had something on his mind. He finally got to it after a few awkward minutes.

 "So, why are you here?"

 I blinked, unsure how to answer that. "Did you want me to leave?"

 "No, no. I meant why are you out here? Instead of in your perfectly serviceable tent, for example."

 "Oh. Uh, yeah, I...look, I really don't want to talk about it."

 "I notice that when you think we should talk about something, even if we're set on protecting our secrets, you're quite single-minded. But you have quite a few secrets of your own, it seems. I would normally try to respect your privacy, but I think in this circumstance I'm going to have to insist. There's something very wrong, and everyone can tell. It's impacting your ability to cope, and we need you alert. So please. Tell me. Is it Duncan? Or something back in your world? I won't tell everyone, I promise."

 I examined his face, seeing only worry for me there. I thought back to being so exhausted I was forced to ride the cart. I sighed.

 "I'm afraid to sleep alone."

 "What? Do you normally share a bed with someone at home? I had understood you to be unmarried."

 "I'm not married. It's not a problem there, I sleep alone no problem. It's just here." I struggled to make sense of it myself, never mind explain. Impossible. "I can't defend myself. What if we get attacked while I'm sleeping? I know for a fact that one morning we're going to be ambushed by shrieks."

 Aedan studied my face, his expression thoughtful. "It's a good point, although I think we should have decent warning given how you've changed our watch schedule. And while I'm sure it's part of the reason, your face says there's more."

 "Look, I...I hate not knowing what's going to happen. Sometimes I sleep and I wake again and everything is fine. Sometimes I sleep and wake up...there. I'm afraid...I don't know. It feels like if I fall asleep, I might just disappear altogether. Maybe never come back. Maybe just die, and never be anywhere. It sounds ridiculous, and having someone share my tent isn't going to prevent any of that but...maybe I'm just afraid of dying alone? I truly don't know. All I know is that the idea of crawling into that tent and just going to sleep in there, all alone, makes me feel like I'll just start screaming and never be able to stop. If I'm out here, at least I'll be so sleepy when I end up in there that I don't notice."

 Aedan examined me for a few more moments, his face sympathetic. I was mortified. It was different with Tomas - it seemed somehow okay to lean on him. I didn't want Aedan to see me as being this weak. He finally pulled me into a fierce hug, which I was suddenly intensely grateful for. I hugged back, a few tears falling, trying to be okay with being vulnerable. I was terrible at it. He finally let me go, wiping a tear away with a calloused finger.

 "So...you're my sister." The way he said it wasn't a question. I nodded - I felt the same. "Which means it would be completely appropriate for me to protect your virtue by insisting you share your brother's tent. What if you move your bedroll into my tent for now? We can make our tent bigger next time we set up camp, but I think we can both fit if we stow our gear in yours. What do you say?"

 My mouth hanging open in shock as I listened, I could only nod gratefully. Twice in one day these people were being incredibly kind to me, when they really didn't need to be.

 I feel so lucky.

 I ducked into my tent, quickly, grabbing my bedroll, and he took his large pack out of his tent and tossed it into mine. I placed my bedroll beside his, crawling in and settling down to sleep as he collapsed beside me. I slipped Leliana's amulet over my head and tucked it into the blankets beside me as Aedan watched, curiously.

 "Thanks, Aedan."

 He reached over and took my hand, not letting go. "You're welcome, sister."

 I fell asleep still clutching his hand, and slept better than I had since first finding myself in Ferelden.

 The next morning I woke before Aedan, noting with an embarrassed smile that I still held his hand. I carefully let go, sitting up to rub my eyes. Having slept fully dressed, I decided to head out before I accidentally woke him with my fidgeting. I put the amulet back on, then crawled carefully away, silently slipping through the flap of the tent. I paused at my own tent to grab my pack, and headed down to the stream Bodahn had mentioned. If I was going to play the part of the noblewoman again, I needed to look it.

 As I approached the location where I thought Bodahn had pointed, I heard splashing. Assuming Leliana or Morrigan were already there, I thought to share my shampoo and headed through an opening in a thick hedge towards where the sound originated. I stopped cold, however, and quickly backed away again as I realised that I had incorrectly guessed not only the identity, but also the gender of the bather. Alistair was kneeling, naked I assumed, in waist-deep water, eyes closed while he scrubbed soap into his blond hair.

 His chiselled face was upturned, the early morning light making his skin appear to glow. He had just a hint of stubble on his chin, and it emphasized the masculinity of his strong jaw. Water and soap suds trickled down his neck and chest to dissipate into the stream, highlighting his broad shoulders, tight muscles, and rippling six-pack. He turned to dunk his head, and his equally buff back was also dripping water and soap. My fingers clenched involuntarily, and I realised that I had never wanted to touch anyone in my entire life as much as I wanted to touch him right then. I groaned softly to myself as his impressively firm ass came into view as he stood. I had a minor freak-out – this was actually Alistair. The real one. Gorgeous and built and beautiful and absolutely corporeal, not imaginary. I suddenly panicked, realising that if he turned, I was screwed. I spun, quickly, and hurried back up the trail, plowing straight into a very surprised Aedan.

 "Good morning, Sierra. You're sure up early. I was almost worried when you weren't in the tent when I awoke." His brow wrinkled as he took in my wide eyes, flushed cheeks, and gasping breaths. "What's wrong?"

 "N-nothing, Aedan. Um. The stream is, ah, occupied. I'll come back."

 Dodging around him, I slipped back into camp and crawled into my now empty tent, hoping to God no one else had seen me. I was certain my face was scarlet, and I couldn't seem to burn the image of the naked Greek Adonis that was Alistair out of my brain. Part of me wanted to strip down and fantasize about him like I did in the dark privacy of my bedroom after the romance scenes from the game. Another good sized part wanted me to crawl back out of the tent, go back to the stream, and throw myself on the mercy of the naked man himself. A small part of me seriously considered throwing up. All of the feelings were as embarrassing as they were unwelcome, and I ended up doing none of the above; instead I put my head between my knees, wrapped my arms around myself, and tried to recite annoying quotes from the bible that one of my foster-mothers had made me learn.

 Wait, hell no. If I'm in Thedas I might at least try to quote the Chant of Light...Great, now all I can think about is the Peas of the Maker and the Bacon and shield, from that crazy sister in Denerim.

 At that I could finally laugh, a little, and decided I was as together as I was likely to get. I'll never look Alistair in the face again, though... With a sigh, I crawled back out of my tent, with pack still in hand, and found Alistair walking by just as I emerged. Avoiding eye contact, face reddening instantly, I heaved my pack onto my shoulder, muttered something about washing, and dashed away. Spotting Leliana, I dragged her with me, making her stand guard so no one wandered in on me the way I did on Alistair. I washed almost frenetically, scrubbing myself thoroughly, washing away the dirt and sweat of a couple of days of hard walking. I washed my hair, rinsed it thoroughly, and then climbed into the safety of my normal clothes, before throwing my dress and cloak overtop.

 Back by the fire, Leliana made a fuss of doing my hair to look the part of the Fereldan noblewoman. She frowned as I strapped my dagger to my thigh under the dress, and then asked Bodahn if he had a sheath for my sword which would work with a dress. He found one which looked mostly like a simple leather belt, but was adjustable enough that I could spin it to hide the sword underneath the cloak. I was surprised, but she just gave me a serious look.

 "You will need to be able to protect yourself. I won't see you helpless." I nodded, and admitted that even though it was heavy, I felt safer with the sword at my hip. And later I can use it on Alistair if he so much as looks at me. I sighed and wandered off to pack my belongings and put my tent into Bodahn's cart.

 Once everyone was packed, we bid a temporary goodbye to Bodahn and Sandal, who were going to stay put until we came back for them at the campsite outside the beleaguered town. Setting out at a quick pace, we headed to Redcliffe and whatever uncertainty awaited us there.

 As we walked, Theron approached me, taking my arm and slowing up a bit so that we trailed behind a little. Distracted by my stupid dress and the sword getting stuck in the folds on my cloak, I didn't really notice until we were out of earshot of the rest of the group.

 "Are you really going to stay in the Chantry during the fight?"

 "Yes, Theron, and so are you."

 "But-"

 "No buts. You will stay alive. I have reason to believe that they," I pointed at the group in front of us, "will be fine. I have absolutely no reason to believe the same thing about you. So you will stand in the Chantry and behave like a good bodyguard, and live to see tomorrow, or I will have Aedan and Alistair tie you up and leave you there. Your choice." He was quiet, and I sensed resignation, not resentment. Thank God for small mercies.

 I sped up again, catching up to Sten, and enjoyed the silence of his company for a while. Theron went to walk with Aedan and Alistair, the three of them trading bullshit like any group of boys. I rolled my eyes and concentrated on just keeping walking. I'd been spoiled by having Bodahn carry all our stuff, and I wasn't really happy to have my heavy pack back on my shoulder.

 By the time we were close enough to see the smoke from the pyres burning in Redcliffe, I was in agony, again. I tried valiantly to hide my discomfort, and mostly succeeded. As before, Alistair was the only one to notice. He took the strap off my shoulder, looking confused and slightly offended as I blushed and refused to meet his gaze. Shrugging, but ever the gentleman, he shouldered my pack alongside his own and walked on. I followed, miserable to have hurt him, even unintentionally, but absolutely unable to ever explain.

 When we reached Redcliffe, Aedan took the lead with Sten, Leliana, Morrigan (who had landed and joined us just before we hit the edge of the cliff), and Alistair falling in behind him, Prince at his side. Theron had taken my pack and hovered behind me, helmet on, hand on the pommel of his sword, looking every inch the protective bodyguard. We followed the sentry down to the Chantry and were ushered inside to meet with Bann Teagan.

 He greeted Aedan and company like a man who has just been thrown a lifeline when he was convinced he was going to drown. He was polite to me, hurrying to offer ‘Lady Sierra of Wentwater’ a seat, but really only paid attention to those he thought could fight. The poor man looked exhausted, and I wondered if he'd had any sleep at all in the last few days. He was almost in tears when Aedan told him that they would help defend the village.

 I followed them outside, Theron hovering, as they spoke with the Mayor and split up tasks. Aedan went off to deal with the reluctant, drunk blacksmith and get him working. It took a bit of doing, but I had convinced Leliana to speak with Ser Perth and then cajole the Revered Mother into a little white lie to improve morale. Alistair, Theron, and Sten went to the village store and picked up massive barrels of lamp oil to ignite the path and hopefully slow, if not re-kill, the undead up the hill. Morrigan went...I have no idea what she was doing, actually. Prince was largely running around and smelling the entire town, including the pyres burning the remains of the attackers and those that had perished from the night before. I spoke with several of the families in the Chantry, giving reassurance as much as I could, and went and found the little boy who had run away from his sister. I ran into Aedan, who had finished with the blacksmith, and talked him into coming with me to the home of Dwyn, the dwarf mercenary I knew was hiding out in town.

 Aedan picked the lock to Dwyn’s place – I wondered where he’d learned those skills – and we were in. It smelled like a locker-room for a high school football team, mixed with stale beer. Ugh, man sweat. Why don’t they have deodorant in Ferelden? I took a moment to thank the Maker (or whoever) that my companions had adjusted to bathing as frequently as I liked to, so most of them were not as pungent. I shuddered as I considered a future travelling with Oghren. Aedan managed to convince Dwyn to fight while I was daydreaming, offering that both he and I would favourably mention him to the Bann and the Arl, but I shocked even Aedan when I spoke.

 "Dwyn, may I ask, have you recently bought any new weapons?" I smiled sweetly, trying to look girly. Knowing my luck I probably just look constipated or something. I persevered. "I heard a rumour that a brave dwarf near these parts might have bought a Qunari blade in the last few weeks."

 "What's it to you, sweetheart?" Aedan tensed at my side and I gestured at him to stay out of it.

 "I'd like to buy it from you, actually." Both Dwyn and Aedan stared at me, dumbstruck, and I laughed. "Come now. Will you show it to my friend here? Please?"

 Muttering to himself, Dwyn stomped into a back room. I heard some cursing, some rustling, and a loud squeak, and then he reappeared with the largest sword I'd ever seen. Aedan examined it with interest, but I didn't even try to pick it up. I doubted I'd be able to even carry it, nevermind swing it.

 Dwyn named a ridiculous price, and Aedan immediately countered far too low. As they haggled, Aedan was getting frustrated and it seemed like Dwyn was being a jerk, just because he could. And then I got an idea.

 "Wait, Aedan. You know what? Instead of buying it, maybe I'll just go and get Sten." Aedan caught on to my bluff right away.

 "Who's Sten?"

 "Oh, you know who I mean. Seven feet tall, cranky disposition? The one who murdered eight people with his bare hands just because they didn't know where this sword was? I'm sure if I tell him that Dwyn here knows where it is, he'll be quite reasonable when he comes to collect it."

 Dwyn’s face paled, and he held his hand up in a conciliatory fashion. I wondered if he’d ever met an angry Qunari before. "Wait now, sweetheart, don't be hasty. I didn't say I wouldn't sell it. How about we make a deal." I nodded, and he and Aedan agreed on a price we could live with. Dwyn promised to be out in the square when night fell, and Aedan hoisted the enormous weapon on his shoulder as we strolled back through the village.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen: Staying Calm

We met up with the others, who had just finished their chores as well. With just a nod, Aedan handed the blade off to Sten. He took it, dumbstruck, and Leliana had to grab an arm to drag him with them as they all headed to the tavern to relax for a few minutes before the battle. I went back to the Chantry, as a noblewoman would not be seen sitting and drinking in a local tavern, especially with a bunch of fighters. As they left, I gave Aedan a look and he nodded - I had told him to recruit Lloyd and Berwick, and he remembered.

 In the Chantry, I took off my cloak and surreptitiously covered my sword so no one would see. I sat with a very anxious Bann Teagan and tried to raise his spirits. We talked about my pretend family, and though I wasn't claiming a lover in Redcliffe this time, he seemed fascinated by my story of a horrible upbringing with a mad elderly father who never let me go outside. He very seriously told me that he would help protect me from my father should he come looking, and invited me to stay safely in Redcliffe once the castle's undead problem had been dealt with. I wondered if he was flirting with me or just trying to distract himself from his worries. If it was flirting, it wasn’t a serious attempt, and it occurred to me that maybe he just flirted with all eligible noblewomen like that. I made a conscious effort to dial it back a bit. I didn't need Theron jealous or any more reasons to be embarrassed among my companions. Or any guilt later, in case he was serious, about misleading Teagan when I knew damn well I wasn't ever going to be any nobleman's wife.

 I was unfailingly positive that we would be fine through the night, and my optimism seemed to rub off on him a little. He sat a bit straighter, smiled a bit more, and some of the lines on his tired but handsome face eased. As it happened, the villagers huddled in the Chantry also seemed to pick up on the mood, and soon everyone seemed a bit more hopeful. I offered Mother Hannah help with tending the wounded, which she declined, but when I learned that there were two tiny orphans around, whose parents had been killed the first night of the attacks, I immediately sought them out. They were about two and three, I figured, both walking but only the older talking beyond a few garbled words. I dug through my pack and found them some bread and cheese, kneeling down to their level and offering it by the simple expedient of placing it in their chubby little hands.

 I had always been good with children, a result of necessity when living in foster care with multiple kids; I soon was sitting on the floor with the two of them curled up against my side, eating and snuggling their little faces into the fake velvet of my dress. I didn't have any books, so I started telling fairy tales from home as much as I could recall. I soon had a small audience of the other children trapped in the Chantry with their mothers, and I tried my best to keep their minds off what was happening. I told the stories of the little mermaid, and Cinderella, and the old lady in the shoe, even adapting the story of Wall-E to be about golems and a boat that was sailing on a lake rather than robots in space. I talked until I was hoarse, still sitting on the floor, now with two children sleeping in my arms, grateful parents coming to collect the other little ones as they saw that I couldn't keep going.

 Aedan, Alistair, and the others came to see me before the locked the doors to the Chantry. I was stroking the soft hair of the two tiny angels who were still sleeping, thumbs in mouths and their heads on my lap. Leliana, eyes bright, helped me settle them on the floor on top of my blanket, with my cloak over them to keep them warm. This revealed the sword I had been hiding under the cloak, and I just shrugged as Teagan gave me a strange look. I left it sheathed, but kept it with me. I hugged each of my companions, including an incredulous Sten and a surprised (but pleased) Alistair, begging them to be careful. Then the Chantry doors swung shut and the bars dropped, Theron and I stuck inside and the rest of our friends stuck outside.

 I settled near the Chantry doors, and Theron stiffly sank to the floor beside me. Teagan did the rounds, ensuring everyone was as settled as they could be, then also took position on the floor near us. Teagan again glanced at my sword. I leaned over to whisper softly, so that no one else in the Chantry would hear.

 "I don't think we need to worry, but I believe in being prepared. I am not a helpless child, to sit in here relying entirely on others to protect me. If, by some terrible occurrence, the creatures manage to get through the defenses and enter this building, I will not stand by and watch us all be slaughtered. Whatever it takes," I looked back at the tiny kids sleeping curled in my cloak, "I will not let anything happen to these people. We will fight, and we will prevail, because the alternative is unthinkable."

 Teagan studied my face in surprise, and I wondered if I had just blown my cover as a noblewoman. I had thought that it wasn't uncommon for Fereldan women to train, to fight, but perhaps that had just been for the benefit of any women who wished to play the game. But as my gaze passed over Theron's face, he gave me a smile and a slight nod (which looked to be perhaps pride?), and I figured I couldn't have blown it too badly. Theron himself propped his shield against his knees, unsheathed his sword and left it close at hand, and gave the impression of being a one-man army. Even Teagan fingered the sword at his own waist, and I knew that, should the worst happen, at least three of us would fight to protect the innocents huddled behind us in the flickering candlelight.

 So, we waited. The people behind us slowly seemed to fall into a fitful sleep, and everything became deathly quiet. Only the three of us near the door could hear the muffled shouts and the clash of steel on steel through the enormous Chantry doors. But nothing ever seemed to approach the doors themselves, and the sounds remained soft and unobtrusive.

 After a while, I think I drowsed, leaning back against a pillar, chin on my chest, only to wake every few minutes listening to the minutest sounds filtering through the doors. I had no idea of the passage of time, and after a bit got up to pace lest I become too stiff with the sitting. Theron shadowed me, and Teagan did the same, periodically; we were the only movement in the stuffy building. When my legs were no longer stiff, I sat again. In this way, we passed a very boring, very tense night.

 I was startled awake by an insistent knocking on the Chantry door. There was a rhythm to it - two knocks, pause, then three more knocks, and this was repeated several times before anyone inside had the presence of mind to get up and unbar the doors. When we did, we were greeted by the sight of a group of villagers, only one or two less than there had been yesterday, crudely armed and armoured, the dwarf and his men, and my companions. Everyone was covered in something sticky, but none of it looked like their blood. I studied each in turn, looking for any sign of injury, and finally allowing a sigh of relief to pass through me once I convinced myself they were all whole.

 Teagan gave a short but heartfelt speech thanking each of the people who had fought to defend Redcliffe. Afterwards, I helped to organise the villagers into groups - kids and anyone who seemed squeamish to go gather wood for pyres, the rest to remove valuables from the recently re-dead and drag their corpses to a pile behind the Chantry. Mother Hannah came out to say a few words over the largely unrecognisable corpses and then we consigned them all to the fire.

 Inside the Chantry, I consulted with Mother Hannah regarding the orphans. She promised to care for them and try to find them homes, and I left her with a small pile of silver to ensure they had everything they needed. They might end up like me, passed from one resentful substitute parent to another, but I swore to myself that if I was ever able I'd do something to help them. I walked away, after one last snuggle, unshed tears glistening in my eyes. Aedan, who knew a little of my past, wrapped his arm around my shoulder as we walked up the hill to the Windmill to meet Teagan.

 Once at the windmill, no one had a better plan, so we chose to do exactly what had been decided in game. Isolde showed up; Teagan gave his ring to Aedan to access the secret passageway. He went with Isolde inside the castle, and Theron and I were to stand by the castle gates with Ser Perth and his men until the rest of the group could fight their way through to open them. With another hug for luck for each of my new friends, I walked to my assigned place and waited again. I could sense Theron getting frustrated, but knew of nothing that would soothe his wounded pride at having been left behind, or his impatience at having to wait around for others to do what he saw as his job. So I sat, exhausted, while he paced.

 We ate a quick meal with the knights, then waited some more. Finally we heard a creak as a small door, barely visible through the gates, opened to reveal Aedan's wary face. They filed out of the cellar door, looking around and seeing nothing threatening. I realised that even Morrigan was spattered with blood, but no one was limping or otherwise obviously hurt, so I assumed either the blood wasn't theirs or relatively minor injuries had been managed with poultices. Aedan sent Leliana to open the gate for us. Just as she reached the lever, Prince started barking, loudly, and the hair on my arms stood up. We were about to be ambushed, I was suddenly certain, and it was my fault because I'd forgotten this detail.

 As the portcullis rose, so did the bodies strewn all over the ground that somehow we had all managed to ignore. In the blink of an eye, the courtyard was full of rotting undead, archers as well as axe- and sword-bearing zombies, and then the icing on the cake - in the courtyard, nearer Leliana than anyone else, rose a strange, ghostly being, floating above the ground, no real feet or easily distinguished features, just a strangely humanoid-shaped grey blur. Sonofa...that's a Revenant.

 A string of curses burst from my mouth as I realised that Leliana was close, too close. I was running, Theron was running, as were Ser Perth and his men, but there wasn't enough time. The Revenant raised its arms, if blobs could be said to have such appendages, and some sort of fel energy gathered between them as it looked at her. I made to stab it with my sword as I drew near, but it seemed to effortlessly flow out of the way. Theron and the knights had all been intercepted by groups of undead. I screamed as the magic gathered, Leliana was already screaming, and suddenly there was an explosion of sorts. Animated corpses started dropping all over the courtyard, like puppets whose strings had been cut. The ball of energy the Revenant had been building just fizzled out, and my sword streaked through where it was still floating, eliciting a high pitched screech. Theron and Ser Perth joined me, and as they hacked at it, chunks of grey mist floated away only to vanish, as did the Revenant moments later.

 I finally looked up to see Aedan and Alistair finish off the last few undead, and the courtyard subsided into total silence. Leliana was on the ground, though struggling to get up, and I stepped over to her, pulling her to her feet, assuring myself that she was fine. Apparently almost losing the only girlfriend I'd ever had scared me more than I wanted to admit, and my eyes were leaking. Again with the crying! I turned to find Morrigan staring at us, and I launched myself in her direction, stumbling over to grab her into a fierce hug, thanking her earnestly for her timely intervention with the Revenant. The witch stiffly pulled away, and I heard her mutter something about 'nothing'.

 "It's not nothing, Morrigan! Leliana could have been killed. Thank you."

 "You aren't listening to me. What I said is that I did nothing. 'Twas not me who caused that explosion, who interrupted that creature. I was too far away, couldn't even sense the spell that did it. I was out of mana because that oaf," she pointed to Alistair, "accidentally hit me with his templar ability. You should direct your thanks elsewhere." Breaking out of my grasp, Morrigan sniffed once, sounding offended, then turned her back and stalked away, digging through a pouch to find a Lyrium potion.

 I looked over at my other companions, all of whom looked as confused as I felt. We had no other mage. If it hadn't been Morrigan, who had it been? We all shared suddenly uneasy glances.

 Ser Perth, oblivious to what had just happened, came rushing up, asking if we were ready to go inside the main hall of Redcliffe Castle. Trying to put aside our worries, I nodded at the same time Aedan did, and so we all trooped slowly up the steps to the main doors. We traipsed through a foyer and a couple of other rooms before entering the main hall where I knew Connor would be with his mother and the enthralled Teagan. Forewarned by my memories of the events, I heard Morrigan mutter the moment she entered the room and suddenly Connor fell over, snoring, surprised by the apostate's sleep spell. Isolde squealed in concern, bending over her son, while Teagan suddenly looked up from the floor where he'd fallen when clowning around to 'amuse' the abomination.

 I left Alistair and Aedan to explain, with Morrigan's aid, what was happening. I sank into a chair, near the back of the room, suddenly fatigued beyond what I could ever remember. I felt Leliana's hand on my back, could tell from her voice that she was concerned, but I couldn't even bring myself to focus on her words. Her voice was so soothing, especially when Isolde shut up for a second, and I felt myself sinking deeper. Pretty soon there was just nothing.

 When I woke, I opened my eyes to pitch blackness. Despite having my eyes closed before that, there wasn't enough light to tell anything about my surroundings. I lifted my hand in front of my face and saw nothing.

 The movement of my arm confirmed for me that I wasn't in some hospital gown, but instead in the commoner dress Leliana had bought for me in Lothering. Okay, still in Thedas then. I felt around me, realising I was on a real bed. I rolled cautiously, putting my feet on the floor and sitting up. Barefoot, toes on a stone floor. I eased myself to stand, then cautiously walked forward, hands out, one small step at a time. I found a wall, and followed it around a corner until I reached what could only be a door. Opening the heavy wooden door with some difficulty, light poured into the room and I breathed a sigh of relief. Damn good thing I'm not afraid of the dark or claustrophobic.

 I heard a noise behind me, and spun, hands searching for my sword even as I registered that I was completely unarmed. I heard a small chuckle at the movement, and recognised Leliana's voice. A chair scraped, cloth rustled, and the bard, now wearing a simple linen tunic and pants, stepped into the rectangle of light.

 "It's just me, Sierra. I'm sorry about the dark - I must have fallen asleep and let the candle burn out." She stepped out into the hallway, holding something up to the small sconce on the wall opposite the door. A candle, I realised, as it flickered and then lit. Coming back into the room, the small candle gave minimal light, but I could see that we were in a bedroom of sorts, complete with four-poster bed, fireplace (currently unused), and a curtained off area that I guessed contained a chamber pot. There was a small table with a wooden chair, and a larger, padded chair that Leliana had been sitting in.

 "We're in Redcliffe Castle?"

 "Yes. You passed out, down in the main hall. Alistair carried you up here," I grimaced and blushed, "and a maid helped me get you undressed. They've taken your clothes for cleaning, don't panic. And your sword is over there." She pointed at the wall, and I saw my belt hanging from a hook, sword in its sheath. "I promised Aedan I'd stay with you tonight. He seemed really concerned that you not be left alone."

 I smiled softly at his thoughtfulness. I never knew having a brother would be so nice! Leliana noticed.

 "He's special to you." She gave me a suggestive look, and I almost laughed.

 "He is, but not like that Leliana. He's my long-lost brother, I think."

 "Ah. Poor Aedan. And does he know this?"

 "What? Oh. Yes, of course. It's why he's so protective of me. Really, Leliana. Trust me. It's nothing romantic."

 "And what of poor Tomas?" I blinked.

 "What about him?" She rolled her eyes. "Wait, no! It's not like that. If Aedan is my brother, then Tomas is...sort of an adoptive father. Besides, I think he’s asexual."

 "He’s wha..?

 "Uh. Sorry. I mean that he isn't interested in sex, that way."

 "Oh!" Another smirk. "Don't even try to convince me the same about Theron."

 "Oh, he likes sex well enough. But I'm not interested in being his mistress, so..."

 "I somehow don't think he's entirely given up hope on that front."

 "Don't I know it! He's just...not my type."

 "Which indicates that there's someone who is your type."

 "Nope. Not me. I'm type-less."

 "Oh come now, you think I haven't seen it?"

 "Nothing to see. Truly."

 "Uh huh."

 I sighed. "I will never be in a relationship with anyone in Ferelden, Leliana. It's just not part of my future."

 She searched my face, her own teasing smile faltering, as she realised I was serious. I looked away, feeling awkward and somehow miserable at the same time. Finally I changed the subject.

 "What time is it, Leli?"

 Looking delighted at the use of a nickname, the bard set down the candle and darted over to crack open the shutters on the one small window. "I think maybe a couple of hours before dawn."

 "Is it acceptable for me to be seen in these clothes?" Leliana examined me critically before nodding. "Then I think I might go wander around a bit. I'm not tired enough to sleep. Why don't you hop into bed? That chair can't have been very restful."

 "Are you sure you don't want me to come with you?"

 "Yeah. I wouldn't mind having some time to think." I pulled on my boots, which got a funny smirk from Leliana, and left, softly closing the door behind me.

 I wandered down the hall, stopping to listen at doors as I passed, hearing mostly snoring. Guest rooms, I assumed, containing my companions. I found an open archway that lead to a set of stairs, and crept down them quietly. I spotted an empty dining room, a few more closed doors, and an entryway to the main hall. When I looked into a room that was clearly Eamon's study, I couldn't help myself. I rifled his desk and found Alistair's mother's amulet. I put it around my neck for safekeeping, alongside the one from Leliana, and then left again. I had no desire to look through the Arl's papers and personal effects.

 I found a different set of stairs leading up, and crept up them quietly. At the end of the hallway at the top was an open door, leading into an elaborately decorated room. As I wandered towards it, I passed a room with Connor in a bed, Morrigan asleep in a chair by his bedside. A couple of closed doors later, and I stuck my head into what must have been the Arl's bedroom. The man himself was asleep on a huge bed, covered to his chin, his face a strangely ashen grey. I wondered where Isolde was, until I noticed a large, blond man slumped over in a chair by Eamon's bedside. I knew Isolde would never choose to stay in the room with Alistair, so she must have left him there and slept elsewhere. Bitch. And what an annoying voice.

 I tiptoed into the room, not wanting to wake Alistair or disturb Eamon in any way. Alistair looked even younger than normal, and sweetly innocent, snoring softly in the large chair. The room was chilly; I looked around and found a blanket on a nearby table, gently drawing it over his sleeping form. I stared at him for a couple of moments, still amazed at how difficult it was to come to terms with this reality. On a whim I slipped his mother's amulet off and carefully tucked it around his own neck, then tiptoed back out of the room.

 By the time I made it back into the main hall, the few servants left in the castle had started to stir, and I passed a few people rushing around. They always stopped to bow or curtsy, and it made me feel really awkward. Finally a young woman approached me directly.

 "My Lady? I have returned your garments to your room, cleaned. Would you care for me to have a bath drawn up?" I nodded eagerly, and she smiled shyly. She ducked her head into a side room, muttering instructions to another servant, and then I followed her up to my room to pick up my clothes, sneaking in quietly so as not to disturb Leliana, and then to a nearby bathing room. Several servants were coming and going with buckets of scalding water, filling a large tub. She showed me an assortment of soaps and the like, and they closed the door as they left. I threw the latch, unceremoniously stripped, and climbed eagerly into the hot water. It was hot enough almost to scald me, but I sank into it, uncaring. I soaked for a while, easing the aches and pains of the last day of travel, and allowing myself to relax. Safe, for five minutes. What a revelation.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen: Small Pleasures in Dark Times

 Once I scrubbed and washed, I dressed with my usual clothes underneath the dress, and opened the door to find the same servant standing outside. She looked surprised to see me, and I started to wonder if she had expected to be required to help me dress. She covered her surprise with an offer to do my hair, which I did take her up on. So I sat while she moved around me, tucking my hair up into an elaborate hairdo with curls that I never usually let loose escaping artfully in places. By the time I got back to my room, Leliana was awake and dressed in her armour, which had also been cleaned, and she beamed as she saw me all fancied up.

 We went down to the main hall together, and I was delighted to be served fruit, bread, cheese, and little sausages, instead of porridge. Alistair, Aedan, Morrigan, and Sten were already there, and Theron joined us shortly. There was a beautiful serving woman who blushed every time she even glanced at Theron, and I was able to make an educated guess what he had been up to the night before. I grimaced, disgusted, and both Leliana and Aedan narrowed their eyes at him. Bann Teagan wandered in just as we were finishing, looking at least slightly more rested. He smiled gratefully at everyone. He came over to bow over my hand, kissing my knuckles, and I heard Leliana cover a snort with a cough; once Teagan released me, I kicked the bard's shin under the table mercilessly. She jumped and grinned at me, unrepentant. Theron glared daggers at Teagan's back the entire time, and Leliana started choking again, meeting my gaze and rolling her eyes with me.

 Everyone enquired about my health, and I tried to brush them all off. Truthfully I had no idea why I had passed out, and wasn't sure I wanted to think about it too carefully. Did it mean there was something wrong with my body back home? Too many other things to think about. Ignore it.

 I noticed Isolde didn't join us for breakfast, and assumed she was sitting by her son's or her husband's bed. And avoiding Alistair, presumably. I was okay with that – the woman pissed me off on principle, and her voice made my ears bleed. I finally met Jowan, the idiot blood mage, who was being allowed a room in the castle (instead of the dungeon) but was being restricted to the main hall and his own room, and followed everywhere by one of the castle's knights. He had the decency to look no more than slightly resigned at that. Since I figured he was going to end up Tranquil, I figured he'd better get used to it.

 Finally everyone had eaten and it was time to plan. We begged leave to borrow a private room to talk in, and Teagan reluctantly walked away after escorting us to the small private library. Aedan checked for people lurking in the hall or outside the window before we started speaking.

 The obvious starting point was that the group needed to go to Kinloch Hold. We needed Circle mages and Lyrium to free Connor from his possession. And it couldn't wait - there was only so long anyone was going to be able to keep the demon sedated. Morrigan volunteered to stay in Redcliffe, to help Jowan keep Connor asleep, and also since she was the only one who could keep an eye on the blood mage. She claimed that someone had to be awake at all times with Connor, so two mages were sort of necessary. Once the group agreed to that, she opted to leave to do...I have no idea. Whatever.

 Aedan pointed at myself and Theron next. "You two will stay here as well. I don't want you to reveal Theron's identity until Eamon is healed, but I need you safe." Theron argued, but everyone, including me, was on Aedan's side and eventually he backed down. I wondered how long before he tried to order us to do it his way. I didn't want to find out just how many of us would ignore the order, and what that would do to his apparently fragile ego. I myself wasn't thrilled at being left behind, but really, what did he expect? We'd discussed this before we even arrived.

 The rest of the group planned to cross Lake Calenhad by boat, and then travel the rest of the way on foot - with the shortcut, it should only take two days to get there. We discussed what to expect - convincing Greagoir, finding Wynne, some demons, blood mages, or abominations in pretty much every room past that point. I reminded them about the sloth demon trapping them in the Fade, and to try to remember that it was only a dream. For those companions whose dreams I was aware of, I'd taken each aside and warned them what to expect. When I played the game, I almost always had Alistair, Morrigan, and Wynne as my companions, so I wasn't much help for Sten or Leliana. Using the Litany of Adralla, rescuing Irving and the others, killing Uldred. Aedan figured it would take a day or two to get through the tower, and then two back to Redcliffe. So all told, approximately a week round trip.

 Aedan and Alistair decided to go find Bodahn and grab a couple of tents and some more supplies for the journey, so they all agreed to leave the next day. As most of them had been up late the night before, talking to Teagan and worrying about my unexplained black-out, I was the only one well-rested. They all stumbled off to get some sleep before their journey the next day.

 Deciding that being active might tire me out so I could sleep later, I dressed in my linen pants and shirt, and wandered down to find out where the knights spent their time. I found Ser Perth in the courtyard, training with his men. Perfect. I explained to him what I wanted, and he sent me back inside first to find the Redcliffe vault. Running into Teagan on the way, he ushered me to the vault to help as I picked through several sets of armour. I wasn't strong enough for any of the heavy stuff, but we finally found a light enough set of leather armour that would fit, and Teagan handed me a wooden practice sword and escorted me back outside.

 I spent part of the morning walking, running, and jumping around in the armour, with Ser Perth's instructions, trying to get used to the weight and the restricted movement. After an hour of that, he had one of the eldest knights of the bunch agree to work with me. Wayne had trained dozens of knights, and despite a dramatic facial scar, was quite grandfatherly. Until the first time he knocked me down, and then it was all business. He gave me pointers on my stance, my swing, and my dodge. He laughed so hard the first time I tried to attack with the practice sword that I actually got a hit, accidental as it was, on his heaving back as he bent over guffawing.

 Changing tactics, Wayne had me put down the sword and work for a while on hand-to-hand combat. He informed me that as clueless as I was about fighting in general, giving me a sword was just giving me permission to stab myself. He encouraged me to stop thinking so much - rapping me on the head as I hesitated, trying to think about what to do next - and I finally started using my instincts, a little at least. I had taken a self-defense class as an option in University, and the brawling seemed to build on that a bit. I was able to use my smaller size and my speed to my advantage, learning grabs and throws. He started pitting me against some of the younger knights, and with a bit of work, I was actually able to grapple one to the ground and make him submit. Everyone cheered, and I realised most of my companions had wandered out to watch while I had been distracted. The good-natured lad allowed me to pull him up before saluting me and stumbling off to hide from the ridicule of his peers. I was exhausted, sweaty again, but somewhat happier. I limped – my body, as much better as it was than the one at home, wasn’t used to the movements, and I swore I pulled something in my hip when I had made that last throw. Wayne handed me a small vial of red liquid, similar to the poultices I’d seen with Duncan, and smiled as I drank it. I took my leave from the knights, promising to return the next morning.

 I wasn't exactly hungry after the exertion - one reason I didn't really exercise at home was it made me nauseous afterwards - but knew I needed something, so Leliana and I found a servant who agreed to bring a platter into the library for us, where we both sat, me exhausted, her thoughtful.

 "Teagan's quite attractive, isn't he?" She grinned, eyes sparkling with mischief. I threw an apple at her, which she caught and bit into with relish.

 "Am I seriously the only single woman, who isn't obviously an apostate or from Orlais, in all of Ferelden? Honestly, you'd think they all hadn't seen a girl before."

 "Well, you are quite beautiful, Sierra. And you blush so prettily every time one of them looks at you! You can't blame them for being besotted."

 "Yes I can," I grumbled, and Leliana laughed, her musical voice making even that sound enchanting.

 Somehow Leliana managed to draw me into a conversation about shoes - she was horrified that I was wearing my boots under my velvet gown - and that's how the rest of the group found us a while before dinner. Aedan and Alistair were covered in dust from their trek to Bodahn's camp and back, and that turned into a discussion where I bemoaned the lack of indoor plumbing in Ferelden. I explained what showers were, and got a variety of reactions; longing from some, horror at the thought of standing under a spray like that from others. Sten merely wondered if we made showers for anyone his height, as Ferelden definitely didn't make bathtubs with Qunari in mind.

 A servant informed us that Bann Teagan awaited us for the evening meal in the main hall, and we all climbed to our feet to join him. Alistair pulled me aside, quickly, a silly grin on his face.

 "If I tell you a secret, will you keep it to yourself?"

 "Of course. You don't see me spilling your other secrets to anyone, do you?"

 "This one is special, though. I know of a place, a way you can have pretty close to a - what did you call it? A shower? - right here in Redcliffe. But you can't tell anyone, okay? I found it when I was young, and I don't want everyone to know."

 "A shower? How?"

 He proceeded to tell me about a way to get under the castle, wiggle through a place where part of a back wall had caved in, climb over some rocks, and end up somewhere in the foundation of the castle. There was a little room, probably formed by the flowing water over many years, where water from the lake poured down, drained across the floor, and out a hole on the opposite side. And the room, he had figured, was right underneath the kitchens, so it was actually quite warm, even in winter. There was even a little natural ledge to put your clothes. The water was apparently cold, but the water pressure sounded wonderful. I agreed readily to keep his secret, and made plans to visit there as soon as I could. I worked really hard not to picture the body I had accidentally seen in the stream standing under a waterfall - get a grip, Sierra!

 At dinner, everyone was still a bit subdued, the horrors of the last several days still fresh, but we had a few laughs. Everyone was astounded at how much Aedan and Alistair could eat, and they were forced to admit it was a Grey Warden thing. When Aedan tried to insist that he didn't eat nearly as much as Alistair, the templar threw a bun at his head. It missed, hitting Sten instead, which caused everyone to absolutely crack up as the Qunari jumped up and challenged Alistair to a duel to the death. Aedan and Leliana stopped laughing long enough to soothe the giant into withdrawing the challenge, with some discussion about how unworthy Alistair was to duel with Sten, and how we really did sort of need all the Grey Wardens we could find to combat the Blight.

 Sten stalked off to bed, and Morrigan also excused herself. Isolde hadn't joined us, and Teagan apologised on her behalf, explaining that she was alternating meals between Connor's room and Eamon's. So that left just Teagan, Aedan, Alistair, Theron, Leliana, and I. And Prince, of course, gnawing on a bone in the corner. Teagan offered us wine, which everyone accepted but me. Somewhere, Leliana had found a lute, and with some begging and pleading, she settled onto a stool and played and sang for us. Her voice rang sweet and clear, and we were all mesmerised.

 After a couple of songs - played just to showcase her talent, I'm sure - she switched from classical and beautiful to upbeat and funny. She had several of the boys banging the table in time, and finally it was too much. Teagan jumped up from his chair, grabbing my hands to pull me out of mine, and started spinning me around. I had no idea how to dance - I'd never danced on Earth, nevermind in Thedas, and I kept tripping over my heavy boots. When I tried to use them as an excuse, he pushed me back into my chair, knelt in front of me, and pulled off both boots and socks before I could even complain. Grabbing me up again, he spun me and twirled, and I clung to him just to avoid falling over or spinning out of control. When he had me close, he actually convinced me to stand on his own sturdy boots, and showed me the steps. It left me slightly off balance, but his hands were sure, and my reflexes better in this body than I was used to, and before I knew it we were dancing.

 Suddenly he let go, and I wobbled around looking for my chair, only to find Aedan standing right behind me. He grabbed me just as Teagan had, and started spinning me again. I began to giggle as I was passed from Aedan, to Theron, and back to Teagan again, spinning wildly around the room, never able to fully catch my breath before the next partner grabbed me again. I spun one final time, and a very hesitant Alistair stood smiling at me hopefully. I took his offered hands and twirled into his arms, and despite neither of us really knowing the steps, it felt...perfect. We both seemed to know exactly how the other was going to move, and I thought I might even look graceful in spite of myself. My face was red, and I hoped everyone would think it was purely exertion. We finally spun to a stop as Leliana ended the music, and Alistair assisted me to my chair before bowing, slightly formally, both to me and to Bann Teagan, and taking his leave presumably to go get some sleep before tomorrow.

 Theron smirked arrogantly at me before also taking his leave, and Teagan kissed my hand again before heading to his own room. Aedan pulled me aside to check what I was going to do for the night, so I asked Leliana if she'd be willing to share with me again. She nodded, a slightly confused look on her face, so I reassured Aedan and followed the bard up to my room. Once the door was closed, she turned, looking slightly concerned.

 "Are you unwell?"

 "No, I'm fine. Why?"

 "I don't understand why you wish me to share your room."

 I sighed. "Long story, but basically I find I am unable to sleep here unless I'm either completely exhausted or not alone. Look, if you'd prefer not to..."

 "No, it's fine. I don't mind. I just...expected you to be worried about sharing a bed with me."

 "Why? Do you kick in your sleep or something?"

 "Well, probably, but that's not my concern. You know about Marjolaine....and me. Together."

 "Uh, yeah?"

 "Sierra, you're a very attractive woman."

 "Oh, I see. You think I should fear for my virtue?"

 "I suppose that's one way to put it."

 "Alright. Let's just stop dancing around this. You're not super-picky about the gender of the person you love. I'm pretty sure that doesn't mean you're helpless to fight the urge to ravish me the minute I let my guard down. You're aware that I like men, and yes, I have given it some thought, but women just don't do it for me. I trust you not to do anything inappropriate, and really trust me I'm not that great a catch anyway. So if you are okay with it, and you promise not to grope me in my sleep, I promise not to tell anyone that you kick in yours. Deal?" Leliana broke out laughing, and I grinned impishly.

 "You're a very strange woman, Sierra."

 "You have no idea."

 At that, I stripped out of my clothes, put on a t-shirt with my panties, and climbed into bed. I carefully hung Leliana's amulet off the headboard, and she smiled. I gestured to the other half of the generous bed, and she finally shrugged, shucking her own clothes, and crawled in beside me.

 "Thanks for the music tonight, Leli. It was wonderful to laugh and forget for five minutes that the world is trying to end."

 "My pleasure."

 I was fighting my drooping eyelids, but losing the battle. I tried to mumble something else, but failed, falling deeply asleep. I woke when the bed shifted, a few moments later, and opened my eyes to see morning sunlight peeking through the window. Leliana was climbing out of bed, trying to be quiet, so I cleared my throat to let her know I was awake and sat up.

 "How can it be morning already? I just fell asleep."

 "Go back to sleep, Sierra dear. It's still early."

 "I want to see you off." I shrugged off her suggestion, getting up and changing into my trousers and shirt again. She donned her leather armour, packed her things into her bag, and signaled that she was ready. I followed her down to the main hall, meeting up with the rest of our group except Morrigan and Theron. Teagan even came down and wished everyone an easy trip. Too bad we already know that's unlikely. I walked the group down to the docks, hugging each as they boarded the small boat Teagan had promised them. Hugging Sten was like hugging a wall. I need to stop doing that. I watched, trying to avoid tears, as they cast off and the rowers started moving them away from the dock.

 There was mist on the lake, and I lost them in it shortly. Turning around, I headed back to the castle, trying not to worry about them. Trying not to wonder where I'm going to sleep. As I entered the courtyard, I saw Wayne, and my spirits lifted. I shouted that I would change into armour and be right back, and he laughed as I eagerly ran up the steps to the castle. A bit of exhausting, mindless brawling is exactly what I need.

 Back down into the training yard in just a couple of minutes, I grinned as I saw Wayne's surprise at how fast I'd been. I imagined most ladies in Ferelden can't just change without help and lots of time. I spent a few minutes again adjusting to the weight of the armour, and then Wayne started drilling me on the brawling moves I'd learned. There was only one I was any good at, which I’d learned in self-defense class, and he told me that even in armed combat it would serve me well - no one would expect it from me, being small compared to the average opponent I was likely to face. I basically tossed a ‘bad guy’ across my back and to the ground. Apparently it looked quite graceful when done right (not that you could see that when I did it), and most men relying on swords would never know how to guard against it. I practiced it until I could do it in my sleep – to an unprepared, inexperienced foe, at any rate. It was good for the Redcliffe Knights as well - I could see them re-evaluating their skills as they tried to counter the various throws and trips that Wayne was teaching

 Once convinced that I could be taught, and after quaffing the contents of another red vial, Wayne again allowed me a practice sword. I spent the rest of the morning, alongside a couple of raw recruits, practicing various sword forms and stances. Wayne was right - once I'd learned to stop over-analysing every move, I was much better. I probably would never be an expert swordsman, but I could hopefully at least avoid stabbing myself with a bit more practice, maybe even defend myself if required. I briefly wondered if I'd be able to translate any of the skills I'd learned into my real body at home. Not that sword fighting was much in-demand, or anything.

 Finally happily exhausted, I turned to head into the castle in search of food, and was seriously considering using Alistair's waterfall, when I ran into Mother Hannah from the Redcliffe Chantry.

 "Oh! Pardon me, Mother. How is everyone faring in the village?"

 "As well as can be expected, my lady, and thank you for asking. Actually, I was just here talking to Bann Teagan about the orphans you met the other night. He's been kind enough to fund a small orphanage to be set up, and I was hoping he could spare some servants to help run the place. I hadn't quite realised how bad things were at the castle, I suppose, and there's really no one to spare. I don't know what to do - I only have a couple of Sisters, and neither of them are really good with children."

 "You know what? I have an idea. I need to get a bit cleaned up and have a bite to eat, but would you be available to meet with me in a couple of hours? Let me see what I can do to help."

 She agreed, a hopeful look replacing the worried one she'd been wearing, and left for the village. I wandered inside, asking a servant for a bucket of warm water and some towels to clean myself up with, and headed to my room to do just that. I changed into the simpler linen dress Leliana bought me, instead of the fancy velvet one, and plodded back down into the main hall. Teagan was there, eating distractedly with a pile of papers in front of him. I asked a servant for something to eat, and joined him at the table.

 "Good afternoon, my lord."

 "And to you, my lady. Missing your friends already?"

 I nodded. "Hopefully they will be back in a week or so."

 "I hear you have taken to embarrassing the new Knight recruits on the practice field while we wait." I giggled and he grinned.

 "It's not my fault if they can't prevent being beat up by a girl!"

 We chatted for a bit, and then I mentioned running into Mother Hannah.

 "She told me that you were willing to help fund somewhere for the orphans to go. Is that true, my lord?"

 "It is. And I hear you gave her some coin as well. Sadly it might not work out; it seems we have a significant lack of people to take care of the children."

 "I have an idea about that. Would you be opposed to paying someone to do it?"

 "I have no objection, no. What did you have in mind?"

 "I need to figure some things out. Let me get back to you." We talked a bit about the budget he had set for the orphanage, and I asked a few questions about how much different types of work might pay in a village like Redcliffe. He looked at me strangely, but answered my questions honestly.

 Finally fed, I took my leave of Teagan and walked down into the village. I hadn't seen Theron all day, so I went alone. First I stopped at the tavern, then I went into the village proper and found the small house I was familiar with from the first day we'd spent preparing the town for the attack. After a brief visit, I met two young women outside the Chantry a few minutes later. They curtsied to me, and then fell into step behind me as I went inside in search of Mother Hannah.

 We found her in the back of the Chantry sitting at a small desk piled with books. When she saw me enter, she motioned to a chair beside the desk, but then looked uncertainly at the two women with me. I gestured for them to stay a little bit away, and they turned to chat with one another quietly.

 Mother Hannah gave me a confused look and I smiled.

 "I have your orphanage workers for you, Mother." I nodded in the direction of Kaitlyn and Bella. "And if you agree, I think I even have a location for you."

 I outlined my plan, in which the orphanage would be set up in the home formerly owned by Kaitlyn's parents, and now occupied only by the young woman and her brother. Kaitlyn and Bevin would share a bedroom, another would hold Bella, and the rest of the house could be converted to play rooms and bedrooms for the orphans. They would need more space eventually, but for now with just a few children, it actually fit perfectly. Kaitlyn needed some sort of work to support herself and her brother, and she was used to taking care of Bevin so she was good with kids. Bella was a bit older and miserable in her job at the tavern. They were both kind, and both were eager for the chance to do something worthwhile, especially if they could also be paid for it. I explained the salaries I expected would need to be paid, and the money to essentially pay rent on the house, which would add up to less than Bann Teagan had offered for the budget. But the Chantry would have the responsibility of overseeing things, making sure the children were well cared for, and for that they could have the rest of Bann Teagan's coin.

 Mother Hannah thoughtfully eyed the two young women, and then agreed that the solution at least made a great deal of sense. She wanted to speak with Kaitlyn and Bella herself, but I was confident it would work out. I left her to discuss the arrangement with the girls and spent the rest of the afternoon, on the floor of the Chantry, playing with the two adorable toddlers I'd met that first night. They remembered me, and soon were climbing all over me as I laughed and tickled them. It felt good to be able to relax for a while, and despite the noise I think everyone was so happy to see the tragic young faces smiling for once that we didn't get so much as a dirty look.

 Thoroughly sweaty and now covered with dust from crawling around on the floor, I headed back to the castle a bit before supper so I would have the chance to wash up before eating. A servant was happy to arrange a bath for me, and while I was left to do my hair without help, I managed to put it up and left a few curly tendrils hanging near my face as she had showed me. A quick glance in my tiny compact mirror confirmed I was as good as I was likely to get and I descended to the main hall for supper.

 It was a much quieter evening, with just Teagan, Theron, Morrigan and myself. I told Teagan the arrangements I had made for the orphanage and he was impressed that I had worked it out so well, without exceeding his budget, and with Chantry approval. I felt just a little better that the sweet tiny people I'd wanted to protect would be cared for better than I had been.

 After dinner, Teagan asked me to take a walk with him, and I felt it would be impolitic to refuse. Somehow Theron's extremely dirty look did not deter me in the least. Morrigan smirked and disappeared back upstairs. Teagan had a servant fetch my cloak, and then offered me his arm and led me upstairs and out a door to the castle's battlements. It was a beautifully clear evening, and the stars were stunning; as I looked out over the lake, I thought I could even see the Circle Tower in the distance.

 Finally he spoke. "My lady-"

 "Sierra. Please, my lord. I feel so awkward with such formality."

 "Then you must call me Teagan." I nodded agreement, giving him a small smile. "You are not what I expected."

 I chuckled. "I have no doubt that is true, my l...Teagan."

 "You're clearly a noblewoman, yet even your ignoble friends treat you like an equal. You're uncomfortable with titles, though you must have used them your entire life. Your bodyguard looks at you like a beggar might stare at a free meal. You can't fight, yet you would offer yourself in defense of strangers. You care about everyone, regardless of station; you crawl around on the floor with orphans. You travel with Grey Wardens, you somehow share a mabari with one, and you wear the strangest boots I've ever seen even underneath a beautiful dress.

 "I do not know what to think of you, Sierra."

 "I am not surprised, Teagan."

 "You're not going to tell me what you're hiding, are you."

 "No, my lord. I'm sorry, but I can't. I truly wish I could; I hate all of this. The lying."

 He sighed, and I echoed him. My hand slipped from his arm and I hugged myself, leaning against the low wall of the battlement, looking out over the village of Redcliffe, wishing yet again I was a better actor. I felt his hand on my shoulders, his presence almost palpable against my back.

 "I won't ask questions. I will trust you. But please. If there is anything I can do, any help I can offer, you only need to ask."

 "Thank you Teagan. I truly appreciate it, but...may I ask why? You have no reason to trust me."

 "I like to think I'm a pretty good judge of character. You don't say everything, but you mean the things you do say. And generally I'd say the company someone keeps gives an indication of their worth. If Alistair believes in you, I could do no less.

 "And, well...I guess I'm a sucker for a beautiful woman in trouble."

 Without even thinking, I pulled away slightly, self-conscious. Teagan withdrew his hand, stepping back and moving to stand beside me.

 "There's someone else." He didn't word it as a question. I didn't deny it, I couldn't, but I wasn't about to wade into that conversation either. 'I think I'm in love with a man I thought was only a fictional character, but I realise I don't deserve him now that I know he's real, or perhaps he's not and I'm just crazy, and you're all figments of my imagination.' I just couldn't see that ending well.

 "You are a remarkable man, Teagan. One day, you will meet someone who will be the luckiest woman alive when she captures your heart. I wish I could be her, in so many ways, but...that's just not possible, for me."

 Suddenly chilled, and more than a little bit awkward, I excused myself and slipped inside. I ran to my room, wishing to be alone, but once I was the daunting prospect of sleeping alone in the big bed overwhelmed me. I cried for a bit, unsure whether I was crying for myself, or Teagan, or what I could have had if only everything wasn't so messed up, or for what I worried was happening to my companions as they travelled to Kinloch Hold.

 I finally moved the big winged chair over in front of the fireplace, which I lit using my handy Zippo. I opened the copy of the Chant of Light that Leliana had borrowed from the castle's library and left behind in the room. I read confusing religious prose by firelight until I fell asleep curled in the chair.

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen: Self Defense

 The next morning, instead of going down to the main hall, I asked a servant to bring me something for breakfast. She also offered to have my clothes washed, to which I readily agreed. After I ate, I buckled myself into my borrowed leather armour, grabbed the practice sword, and headed down to the courtyard hoping to locate Wayne. He wasn't there, but a few of the guys I'd brawled with the day before were around, so after warming up a bit, we resumed practice. A couple of times the young knights managed to get a hold on me, or get in a lucky hit, but for the most part I was able to take most of them down with the throws Wayne had taught. We joked good-naturedly about it, and then I fell to practicing my sword forms and footwork. A couple of the more experienced knights called out corrections or suggestions, but for the most part I practiced alone until lunch.

 Deciding that I couldn't avoid Teagan forever, I ate in my armour in the main hall. Teagan was polite, and smiled at me, but was back to calling me 'my lady' and we only talked about neutral topics. Afterwards he excused himself to do some business down in the village, and I decided it would be an ideal time to try to find Alistair's 'shower'. I begged a spare loose-fitting dress from Isolde, which I thought would fit me, if only just, and gathered up a bundle of things including my soaps, shampoo, and a towel I borrowed.

 I snuck down into the bowels of the castle, heading through storerooms and long disused hallways. I carried a candle, which I lit as I got to a hallway without sconces lit like in the rest of the castle. I avoided the dungeons, as my destination wasn't near there, to my relief. After a few wrong turns, I found the crack in the foundation that he had mentioned, squeezing through, and then following the sound of running water.

 Alistair was right about the warmth; despite the cold water, the room was quite comfortable. Sunlight filtered in to the room through a few holes in the rock opposite where the waterfall flowed. I set the candle protectively in the corner, sure I'd never get back if it went out. I stripped off my armour, folding it onto a dry spot on the floor, but putting my borrowed dress, towel, and clean spare undergarments on the little ledge that seemed purpose built for holding clothes. The floor was slightly slippery, and I cautiously eased my way to stand under the full blast of water coming from a crack in the far wall.

 The water pressure was almost enough to bowl me over, and I stood under the full brunt of it only for a few seconds, before sidling over towards the corner where the spray was soft enough for me to wash. I scrubbed myself with a small cloth until I was too cold to continue, then stepped out of the spray to wash my hair. I warmed up quickly in the heat of the room, so I braved the spray again to rinse out the suds.

 I dried myself off with the towel, and slowly started to dress. I marvelled at the crazy construction that allowed this little room to exist, with no one above aware of its presence. I had just succeeded in putting on bra and underwear, still gawking around, when I was startled by a hand on my waist. I heard a voice say something that I couldn't quite make out through the thundering sound of the waterfall, and instinct kicked in before I could think.

 I grabbed the wrist of the hand at my waist, turning away, bending forward, and twisting my hips as Wayne had taught me, and tossed the offender to the ground with a thump. Thinking frantically, I kept spinning with the momentum of the throw, reaching to grab the dagger out of the sheath on the ground with my armour, and then spun again to drop onto the back of my attacker, arm around his neck in a submission hold and the point of the dagger just barely digging in to the skin over his jugular.

 At which point I finally looked at the person I had thrown, and realised I knew him. He was now slightly damp, face down on the slippery rock floor, and blood was trickling from where my dagger had pierced, but there was no mistaking that stylish brown hair or strong jaw.

 "Theron!" I hissed. "What in the hell are you doing down here?"

 "If you get off my chest, I'll better be able to answer that, Sierra."

 "No. Answers first. You don't sneak in and lay hands on a half-naked woman without a bloody good reason." I backed the dagger away from his neck, but didn't put it down.

 "I didn't sneak up! I called out and you didn't hear me. Sierra, please. It's sort of hard to breathe, down here, and the water is sodding cold!"

 I considered, very briefly, and then jumped up off him, retreating to grab the towel and wrap it around myself as some sort of covering while he picked himself up off the floor. I still held the dagger at my side, gripping the handle as hard as I could, unable to decide between fury, fear, and embarrassment.

 "So answer the question. What are you doing here?"

 "I followed you, okay? I saw you sneaking through the halls and I thought I'd see where you were going. I’m supposed to be your ladyship’s bodyguard, am I not?"

 "So exactly how long were you watching me?" Fury was winning, suddenly, and I realised I had taken a step towards him, dagger now held out front, threateningly. He backed away, empty hands raised in a placating gesture.

 "I didn't, I swear. I had to stop and move some rock from that crack you squeezed through - I couldn't fit. I just got here."

 "And so you thought you'd come and visit with me when I was undressed? Were you planning to wash my back?" I took another step forward, the anger on my face belying the flippancy of my words. "I suppose you thought I would invite you to join me, that I would fall into your manly arms overcome with desire?"

 Anger flashed across Theron's face, suddenly, countering my own. "No, I think that you've got quite enough manly arms offering to catch you, Sierra."

 "What the hell does that mean?"

 "Well, how many men can you string along, really? Seriously. Straight from Duncan's tent to Aedan's? Did you think no one would notice? And now poor Teagan, hanging on your every word? And don't think I missed how you danced with Alistair last night. And me. What, are you just trying them all out, seeing who will fit the bill? Or maybe waiting for the best offer?"

 The ringing sound echoed through the small room as I slapped Theron's face, as hard as I could. Damn, now my hand hurts. My shoulders sagged, and suddenly all the rage drained out of me. I stepped back, dropping the dagger onto my pile of armour, head down. I turned away, speaking over my shoulder just loud enough to be heard.

 "I'm glad to see you're consistent in your beliefs, even if they are undeserved. So much for being like a brother, hey? I've been honest with you from the beginning, and maybe that's the problem. You've been too pampered, too spoiled, and too important for anyone to ever tell you the truth. You don't know how to handle it.

 "Get out, Theron. Go to your room and stay there, or go seduce another poor Redcliffe serving girl. I mean, hell, what's another royal bastard in Redcliffe Castle? Just stay away from me. Because I swear, if you ever touch me again without permission, I will use this dagger instead of just threatening with it."

 I waited until his footsteps were gone before sinking down to sit on the ground, towel loose around me, nakedness forgotten. I dropped my face into my shaking hands, bursting into tears. As the adrenaline wore off and my body accepted I wasn't being attacked, the fear disappeared, leaving behind a mixed jumble of emotions. Anger, still; hurt; embarrassment at my over-reaction; shame, somehow, despite logically knowing I had done nothing wrong; they all combined to leave me miserable and sobbing on the cold stone floor.

 The chill finally got to me, and I stood up, slowly dressing in my borrowed clothes. I suddenly felt old and frail, my back hunched, the bundle with my armour heavy, my chest aching from crying. I crept out of the basement, slowly, making it to the main floor and then deciding I needed a rest before continuing to my room. I turned into the small library, assuming it would be empty, but I found Morrigan there, in discussion with Jowan and Teagan. I would have left, but my arms suddenly felt weak and I dropped the pile of armour I was carrying unexpectedly. I looked down at it, in surprise, and when I looked back up, Morrigan's concerned face was swimming across my vision. I think she said something to me, but I couldn't even have guessed what it was. Damn, in front of Teagan? This is going to complicate things. The world started spinning, and I fell, my vision tunneling down to a single small point of light, then everything was gone.

 ********

 For once I was unsurprised to wake in hospital. It wouldn’t have taken me long to figure it out, in any case, because there were monitors buzzing and ringing like crazy around me. It was almost like there were sirens going off. I opened my eyes to see hospital staff rushing past me, heading for the source of the noise – the bed next to mine. I sat up, looking over to see the unfortunate patient having a seizure or something, and I looked away quickly, feeling like a creep for staring. I had noticed, briefly, that the monitors on the wall weren't in use, and instead she was surrounded by portable monitors with wheels. I decided to wait before ringing for a nurse, and settled with doing a personal inventory instead. I noticed that, for once, I didn’t have an IV, though a large bruise on my forearm explained that. The catheter had been left out, and I was relieved to find I didn’t wake up with a feeding tube or any other new orifices.

 Ahh, hospital gown. I decided changing was my first priority. I didn’t feel particularly grubby, so either my recent shower in Redcliffe transferred, or someone here had just given me a bath. I did notice my right hand was still sore. Damn, why does slapping someone hurt so much? I realised if I thought too much about that I was going to start crying again, and I couldn’t even start to predict the fall-out of disappearing into thin air in front of Jowan and Teagan, so I forcibly turned off my brain and concentrated on standing up without showing off my ass through the back of my gown. I pulled the pathetic excuse for a privacy curtain around me, opened the nearby cupboard thing, found my clothes, and changed into my usual jeans, t-shirt, jacket, and boots.

 Feeling much less vulnerable, I opened the curtain again to find a young, very scared looking nurse eyeing me uncertainly. The fuss next door had apparently settled down and the rest of the staff must have left while I was changing.

 “Hi!” If she looked like she’d seen a ghost before, apparently being greeted by one was even worse. Hers eyes got huge, her mouth opened, and a surprised ‘urk’ sort of sound escaped from her throat.

 “Y- you’re awake? You’re supposed to be in a coma.”

 “Yeah, I sort of do that. Sorry to startle you. No one warned you that I pop in and out?”

 “Uh, no. I’m new here.”

 “Ah. So, um, what now?”

 “I…think I’ll go talk to the charge nurse.”

 “Sounds like an excellent plan. I’ll just wait here, shall I?” I sat in a nearby visitor chair, and the nurse gave me one more odd look – trying to reassure yourself you’re not dreaming? Join the club – and then darted off to find herself backup.

 A few minutes later, an older, less panicked looking nurse and my now familiar doctor entered. The nurse hovered, checking my vitals for a few minutes, before the doctor finally cleared his throat and she reluctantly left. The doctor eyed my unusual hospital garb, sitting on the edge of the bed I had vacated.

 "What's with the clothes?" I sighed. How to explain?

 "The dreams. When I am having them, it seems...whatever I was wearing when I blackout is what I am wearing in the dream."

 "Why not just...change?"

 "They're not like that. I mean, I feel awake. I know what has happened, know that my body is here in hospital, know who I am. But it's not like I've heard lucid dreams described - I can't just decide to fly around or summon cake with only my imagination. If I want new clothes, I have to find new clothes and then take these off and put the new ones on. So I either have to buy them, or steal them, or whatever. But then I wake up here wearing either the same thing I blacked out wearing, or you know, a hospital gown. I told you what some of the dreams are like - I don't want to end up in my dream wearing just a hospital gown."

 He sat for a while, face pensive. The only thing he said is "I don't understand how this is possible."

 "Magic," was my only response, and though I wasn't joking, he laughed.

 "Wouldn't that be nice!" You have no idea, doc. He asked me if I expected any other injuries this time, and I shook my head. None you could see on the outside.

 "So why no IV this time?"

 "Well, the one you had went interstitial, so we had to take it out." He gestured at my bruised forearm. "And there was some sort of weird power surge here a few days ago, and it disrupted some of the monitors and things, so it took a couple of days to figure it out before we realised we forgot to replace it. We decided to wait and see what happened if we didn't put a new one in, since you were fine for two days... And I can't understand it to save my life, but despite no fluid for, I think, four days total - you aren't dehydrated. And you should be. You haven't voided," when I looked confused, he clarified, "uh, gone pee (or poop for that matter) in six days. You look like you've lost maybe a little bit of weight since I first met you, but not like you should be if you frequently go days without eating! I just don't..."

 "Understand. Yeah, me neither, doc."

 "I'll come see you again tomorrow. I'd like to do a PET scan with you awake, compare it to the one we did when you were out. We can talk more then." Joy, more scans.

 "Wait, one sec. When exactly did the weird power surge happen?"

 "Two days ago." At my 'give me more detail' gesture, he thought back. "Around noon, I guess. Why?"

 "Just curious. Thanks."

 He nodded, and left. I tried to think back, trying to guess times in my head. Two days ago was the day we entered the castle. And noon would probably line up normally with the fight in the courtyard. With the revenant. Was it possible that events here somehow carried over in some way? Perhaps the power surge was the source of the blast? Strange. Maybe I have faulty wiring to thank for Leliana's life.

 With nothing else to do, I fell into a natural sleep. I had actual nightmares that night - normal ones, not waking up with darkspawn attacking, but instead dreams of being attacked, or raped. Some of them were clearly Theron, and he was usually telling me that he was allowed because he was the King. Sometimes the face wasn't visible, and I didn't know who it was. The last, the worst, was Alistair. It started out sort of romantic, and then he was naked with that beautiful body of his, and then he changed, and suddenly he was hurting my arm, shaking me...

 I opened my eyes and found the same young, frightened nurse from the day before. She had a surprisingly strong grip on my upper arm, and was shaking me, hissing in my ear.

 "Sierra! Wake up! You're dreaming. Wake up!"

 "I'm awake." I pulled my arm from her grasp, rubbing it ruefully and giving her a dirty look. "Ow!"

 "Sorry. You were screaming, and I was having trouble waking you up."

 "I...yeah, sorry. Nightmares."

 "Dare I ask what about?"

 "Uh...I don't remember." I lied. She shrugged, letting it drop.

 "It's time for your PET scan, anyway. Come with me."

 A porter wheeled me to the scan in a wheelchair. I was allowed to wear my clothes into the PET scanner, although I earned some strange looks from the techs running the machine. It was a sort of entertaining scan, actually - they played images on a screen as it did its thing, and I was supposed to just stare at the images and try not to think too much.

 Afterwards I ran into the doctor in the hallway, and he took over pushing my wheelchair back to my room. He told me it would be a day or two before he had results from the PET scan.

 "Listen, tomorrow you should meet with a lawyer. There's one the hospital uses - the social worker you met can help set it up."

 "A lawyer? Am I in trouble?"

 "No, no. It's an...estate planning thing. To figure what's going to happen to you, who's going to take care of paying your bills and managing your money and stuff. And figure out where you should, uh, live. Because staying in a hospital isn't really necessary, considering that you don't seem to need any medical treatment, but you can't really be at home if you keep blacking out like this, and I've exhausted the tests I can think of to do. You need somewhere you'll be safe, where they can manage you when you black out."

 "Oh. I, uh, suppose I should do that then." My face must have looked like I felt - worried, sad, offended, and betrayed all at once.

 "It's not my choice, Sierra. I've been fighting them on it for a while. But if you don't pick something, eventually they're going to make the decision for you despite what I think, and instead of waking up here, you'll wake in some nursing home or something. Anything would be better than that."

 I sighed. "Okay. But...doc?"

"Yes?"

 The dizziness suddenly threatened to overwhelm me, and I was glad for the wheelchair I had been embarrassed about earlier. "I don't think I can make it tomorrow."

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen: Vicious Circle

 I was getting a bit sick of the disorientation following one of my 'transitions', overall, but this was definitely the worst. I opened my eyes and let out an involuntary shriek. Not only was I completely clueless as to where I was, but as I watched in dismay, the headless corpse of what I assumed was once a person fell towards me, almost in slow motion, and landed right on me. Blood flowed freely from the stump that was once a neck, and I quickly closed my mouth, turning my head to avoid an even more unpleasant experience.

 I heard a voice hiss out "Leliana?"

 "Wasn't me," came the whispered reply.

 "Wynne?"

 "Don't look at me, child."

 "Alistair. It's me. Sierra. And…" I gulped a breath through my mouth, squeezing my eyes shut as well. "...I think I'm going to throw up."

 "Sierra? Sweet Andraste's ass, what are you doing here? And where exactly are you?"

 "Under the corpse you just dropped on me. At least, it looks like your work. I don't think Aedan or Sten would be so messy."

 "Are you seriously complaining about my killing hygiene?"

 "If you were lying here being dripped on by God knows what, you would too. I'll make you a deal. Get this body off me and I promise never to mention it again. After I throw up that is." I felt something shift, and with a soft grunt the weight lifted and the incredulous face of Alistair looked down at me. Before I could move, Prince practically leaped on me, bathing my face with his tongue. I strongly suspected all he was doing was smearing the gore around, but on the floor as I was, I had limited ability to remove the offending mutt from his self-appointed task. Aedan finally called Prince off, and once the dog-breath cleared, Leliana was also hovering over me.

 "Heya. I am so glad you're all here. A little help?" I smiled up at my friends.

 I held out my hand; ignoring it completely, Alistair plucked me off the ground the way I might pick up an infant and set me on my feet. I was suddenly so happy to see them that I grabbed Leliana and Alistair both into a three-way hug that left Leliana and I giggling and Alistair sputtering. I turned and bounced over to Aedan and hugged him as well. When I looked over to Sten, his eyes narrowed and his hands shifted on the pommel of Asala, and I decided against taking my life in my hands, though I flashed him a big smile.

 "What was that about?" I heard Alistair mutter to Leliana. She shrugged, and he muttered some more.

 "You look...really disgusting, Sierra dear." Aedan grinned, and I flicked some gore off at him vindictively.

 "Don't make me puke on your boots. Wait. Wynne is here? Ah. Circle Tower then."

 "Sierra, you still haven't explained how you got here."

 "I thought it was sort of obvious, Aedan. I popped out in Redcliffe, had a fun little day at home, and then popped back in here. Apparently your Maker has a sense of humour, at least - I can't imagine less helpful circumstances to pop in or out in. I disappeared right in front of Teagan and Jowan." Groans of disgust in stereo. I almost laughed. "I can't even guess how Morrigan is attempting to explain that. Fortunately she was there too, not Theron. He's not so quick thinking, that one..." I grimaced, and Aedan raised his eyebrows. I shook my head, trying to communicate 'later'. He nodded.

 "So, uh, back to Wynne." I walked over to the older mage, who'd been standing and watching the proceedings with confusion. I wiped my hand, uselessly, on my filthy jeans, before looking down at the sticky appendage. "I'd offer to shake your hand, but...I don't think you'd appreciate me for it. Hi, Wynne, I'm Sierra. Nice to meet you. "

 I have to give Wynne credit - she looked baffled, but managed a polite smile and a head bob, murmuring greetings. I turned back to the group.

 "I take it you haven't warned her about me?" They all shook their heads. "Right. I suppose later would be a better time to discuss this. Sorry, Wynne, I promise to explain my...unorthodox entrance, once we're done here. But I seriously want a bath. And some new clothes. Anyone at least see a washstand in the last few rooms you cleared?"

 We did manage to find a washstand, and I wiped my face and hands thoroughly, then briefly rinsed my hair. We decided to wait to find me new clothes.

 "So where are we, anyway?" I looked around, trying to recognise anything familiar in the rooms and hallways, but everything looked so different from the game that I gave up.

 "I think we've cleared the second floor completely now. Heading up to the third."

 "Oh goody. I just love demons." I sighed. "Well, since it seems I'm stuck coming with you, anyone got a spare dagger?"

 We did indeed find me a spare dagger on the body of one of the blood mages killed before I arrived. I decided against taking a sword from one of the slain templars, given that Wayne had told me I was still barely able to keep from impaling myself. Aedan and Alistair laughed as I briefly described my attempts at training while we searched bodies. Well, they searched bodies, and I again I contemplated throwing up. Killing darkspawn was one thing, but these had been people at some point. Leliana and Wynne tried to be sympathetic.

 Sten kept giving me very odd looks when he thought I wasn't looking. Finally I couldn't keep in the giggle from knowing exactly what he was thinking.

 "Sten."

 "Yes?"

 "I know what you're wondering. Yes, I am a woman. Yes, I am trying to learn to fight. I know you don't approve, and given my skill level I'm not sure I disagree with you about me personally, but since it seems I don't have any choice about ending up in danger, I thought I should at least try not to be a burden, and perhaps try to be able to defend myself." He looked thoughtful. "Even among the Qunari. Let's say a woman was alone, for whatever reason, and she was attacked. By bandits or the like. Even if she was a merchant or a farmer, wouldn't you expect her to fight to try to defend herself? Or would you expect her to stand still and let herself be cut down?"

 "No Qunari would die without a fight."

 "Right. So this is like that. I just...know in advance that I'm going to get into these situations. So it seemed prudent to try to prepare for them if possible."

 "I can accept that." Thanks for the ringing endorsement, Sten. "Thank you for explaining it to me."

 “I’m not saying I agree with your opinion on all women, Sten. Some women fight very well. Look at Leliana! So don’t go thinking I approve of your misogyny.” If they didn’t understand the word, they must have figured it out from the context – no one said anything.

 I rolled my eyes as Aedan stifled a laugh. I know where you sleep, buddy.

 Finally (sort of) prepared, I followed the rest of the group up the stairs to the third floor. There were a couple of empty rooms, before we entered what looked like a large mess hall, with long rows of tables filling the centre of the room. There were several large statues, and I vaguely recognised them from the game. Corpses littered the floor - many of them templars, a few obviously mages.

 "Uh, guys?" I held out a hand to stop everyone from going too far across the room. "These corpses aren't going to stay dead for long."

 Wynne looked confused. "What are you talking about, child? Believe me, they are dead. I would feel it if they still had life force left."

 Aedan looked at me, brushing hair out of his handsome face. "More - what did you call them in Redcliffe? Zombies?" I nodded. "Sadly, Wynne, Sierra is always right about this sort of thing. And the lack of life force doesn't mean they can't be reanimated. Right. Circle formation around Sierra, everyone. Let's all stay really close together." I was suddenly standing uncomfortably close to five nervous, sweaty people, and one rather pungent dog. Note to self: I need to invent antiperspirant in Thedas. And doggy biscuits. I put a hand on Alistair's shoulder, and Leliana and Aedan, behind me, did the same to me. We inched forward in a tight circle, making it about halfway across the room before the clattering sounds of armoured beings getting up off the floor confirmed my prediction. Wynne gasped beside me. Sometime I'd like to be wrong. Just to mix it up a little.

 The undead started charging towards us, fortunately lacking any coordination, just trying to swarm us as fast as they could come. Alistair stepped away from my hand, bashing a couple down with his enormous shield. Leliana's bow twanged, and Sten roared as he raised his enormous sword and swept through a group in front of him. I heard Wynne chanting, and an area of ground in front of her started rocking and quaking, throwing the undead to the ground. I only caught brief glimpses of Aedan as he danced through the swarm, daggers flashing. I kept my dagger in hand, my posture loose as Wayne had taught me, ready to dodge or grab or stab any opponent who came close, but none did. Before I was able to even understand what all had occurred, the fight was over.

 "Remind me never to piss you guys off," I muttered, and everyone laughed.

 We quickly took all the money, poultices, and Lyrium potions we could find from the bodies around us, and gathered ourselves to move to the next room. Wynne walked up beside me, shooting me an apologetic look.

 "I'm sorry I doubted you. I hope sometime you'll explain how you know these things?" I nodded, smiling.

 "I promise. As soon as abominations and demons stop trying to kill us."

 We moved slowly from room to room, clearing out possessed and enthralled templars and a few demons. We gained a good-sized stash of potions and poultices, which I offered to carry in a scavenged bag. If anyone had to be encumbered, it should be me, and I'd have time to fish through and hand people what they needed without prolonging the fights.

 We cleared the rest of the third floor without much trouble. Approaching the door leading to the stairs up, I asked Aedan for my notes and quickly consulted what I'd copied there from the wiki.

 "Okay, so, a desire demon with a charmed templar - she's tough to kill, and she'll animate some corpses. No point chatting with her, unless letting a demon escape works for you." I looked around and everyone shook their heads. "And a pretty powerful blood mage with a bunch more templars. Then we're going to run into a sloth demon. We're all going to end up asleep, in the Fade, facing a nightmare. Once you no longer believe in your nightmare, you should be able to escape. We fight the sloth demon in the Fade, and then we can finally wake up." I gave Aedan back the book - in case I disappeared, he needed it, not me.

 On the fourth floor, the fights went just as I'd predicted. The desire demon didn't even get a chance to talk before Alistair drained its mana and the rest just cut it down. I did end up being attacked by a templar, but something about being charmed must have slowed it (or perhaps he was just crappy at his job in the first place), because I dropped my pack, dodged his clumsy swing, grabbed his wrist and threw him just as I had thrown Theron, and slit his throat before anyone had to come to my rescue. The four who had seen me try to train with a sword laughed and pounded me on the back, congratulating me. Aedan looked fiercely proud, and I gave my brother a wan smile, before finally following through on the vomit that had been threatening since I'd arrived.

 Wynne surreptitiously healed my shoulder where Alistair had thumped me a little too enthusiastically. We shared a fond eye roll in his direction as I thanked her quietly.

 Finally we came to the door I'd been dreading - the sloth demon lay behind. Reminding everyone to try to remember they were in the Fade, we stepped into the room, Aedan exchanged a few words with the demon, and we all fell asleep.

 ********

 I woke in hospital. Cursing my timing, I wondered when I would be able to get back to my friends. I'd forgotten to remind them to grab the Litany of Adralla. Hopefully Aedan got to talk to Niall in the Fade. And I was sort of hoping to get to meet Irving! Oh, Maker, if it's you doing this, don't make me pop back in at Redcliffe, please! I don't want to talk to Theron right now.

 I took my usual personal inventory. No tubes. Hospital gown. I went to sit up, but realised my hand was stuck somehow in the bed. Looking down, I realised it wasn't stuck, exactly - it was restrained. I was tied to the damn bed! Investigating further, I realised that both hands and both feet were on short tethers, leather cuffs around wrists and ankles. I was in a private room, for the first time. I must have been thrashing or seizing or something while I was out. I spent a minute searching for the nurse call bell, to no avail.

 Left with no other option, I opened my mouth and shouted. At first no one came, so after waiting a couple of minutes I shouted again, and again. I finally heard someone crack the door, and I strained to lift my head and see who'd come in.

 All I could see at first was the back of someone in a long doctor's coat. He was bent over, carrying a food tray, but as he straightened, I could see that it wasn't my usual doctor. He had sandy hair, and as he turned I gave a little strangled scream. It was Alistair. Or at least his identical twin. Same strong jaw, same hairdo, same mischievous smile.

 "Good morning, Sierra." He didn't have a British accent, it occurred to me. And then I wondered why he should. Weird thought.

 "Alistair?"

 "Oh dear, a bad day then." Alistair sighed. "I was so hoping to be able to let you out of those restraints today too." He set down the tray, coming to stand by the bed as I stared at him in shock. "It seems we will have to start at the beginning again, then.

 "My name is Dr. Markus. You are in the hospital, on the psychiatry ward. You've been here for three months."

 "This isn't funny, Alistair. What the hell is going on?"

 "This really is a setback! I am not Alistair, Sierra. Please, try to remember. Your brother, Aedan, and your husband Theron brought you in because you were getting so confused. You kept thinking you were somewhere else, that each of your family and friends were someone else. You couldn't tell what was real anymore."

 "Theron...?" The Alistair clone gave a hopeful smile.

 "You remember him? Wonderful. Here. I think maybe we need to have another group meeting. Why don't you just relax, and I'll call everyone to come visit. Maybe that will help you remember even more." Before I could object, Alistair left, and I felt...hazy. I must have been medicated. I fell asleep.

 When I woke again, I was still in my hospital gown, still tied to the bed. Someone was shaking me, and I opened my eyes to see Aedan, a concerned look on his face. He kissed my cheek and I relaxed slightly. I looked around, and realised that Leliana was there, holding Aedan's free hand, as were Theron and the Alistair clone-doctor.

 Leliana let out a soft cry and pushed Aedan out of the way to hug me. "Sierra! How are you feeling, sweetheart?" She sounded weird, somehow, though I couldn't place it. Her accent was vaguely Southern Belle, and her voice was a bit hoarse, kind of gravelly. She backed away as I just looked at her in shock, and Theron approached the side of the bed instead.

 "Hi, honey. How are you?" He put his hand on my abdomen, and it clenched in fear. I had no idea what I was afraid of, but that casual touch made me want to vomit in disgust. His eyes had that possessive look in them, as he leaned in obviously intending to kiss me, but seeing the look of abject terror on my face, settled with gently kissing my forehead instead. I'd hated that look since... when? I couldn't remember the first time I noticed that expression. As he walked away, heading for the chair at the foot of the bed, his hand trailed down from my stomach, to my hip, and down my thigh. My skin just crawled, and I had to bite my lip to stop from screaming.

 I looked over at Ali...Dr. Markus, unsure why but truly feeling like only he might be able to give me the reassurance I needed, might be able to explain. His face was carefully neutral, none of the laughing, silly expressions that I remembered from...wait, who was Alistair again? I couldn't keep any train of thought for more than a few seconds, and I wondered again what meds I'd been given.

 The group launched into a big intervention session. Reminding me of details I'd obviously forgotten from our lives, telling me how much they loved me, missed me. I felt guilty for not remembering - yes, of course, Aedan and Leliana have a son. How could I have forgotten little Oren? And Theron and I had been trying to conceive. I smiled, thinking about a sweet little child of our own, but looked up to see that possessive glint in his eye again, and the enjoyment faded. Why was I so afraid of my own husband? I concentrated on that emotion for a minute - it was the only one that felt real. Dr. Markus seemed to realise my mind had wandered, and started talking about how devoted Theron was to me, how he visited every day, even when I'd been too sedated to wake up, even when I screamed at him to go away. I latched on to that - this had not been my only time to feel disturbed by his presence? And if he loved me so much, why would he treat me like a whore? That thought shocked me - when had my sweet husband ever treated me like a whore? But I thought I could remember...it was gone. Damn drugs! Messing with my head.

 Focus. I needed focus. I tuned out the doctor, my brother, my husband. Starting with the fear, I tried to slowly rewind my way back - that look on his face, feeling like a whore...I remembered a campfire. Sitting near a campfire in dawn's early light, him looking at me like I was prey...

 "Theron, do you remember that camping trip? Where did we go, again? I can't remember."

 "Camping, honey? We've never been camping. Are you thinking of someone else?" He was a bad liar, normally. I think that might have been the thing that clinched it. He was lying to me, I could see his handsome face by firelight in my mind, disappointment as I turned him down...He shouldn't be able to look me in the face and tell me we've never been camping. Unless he wasn't really Theron...

 The fucking Fade! I can't believe I forgot. I'm in the fucking Fade!

 I wished I had my hands free so I could face-palm. Now that I could see through the illusion, the rest of my memories came flooding back. Thedas. Redcliffe. Theron...I guess I couldn't call it an attack, though it's how I felt about it. The Circle tower. Aedan and Alistair and Leliana and Wynne, trapped somewhere else in the Fade! I had to get to them.

 Ignoring my supposed family and supposed doctor, I struggled partially upright, wrenching my arms in the leather cuffs. If I know it's illusion, can't I just will them off? Apparently not. I wondered briefly which of them was the demon. Alistair made the most sense, he'd been around the most, but it could have been any of them. It's a good thing demons don't really understand human emotions. If they'd picked anyone other than Theron to play the role of my husband, I might not have seen through it. But muscle memory apparently remained, even in the Fade, and my muscles remembered wanting to slap the crap out of Theron.

 They were talking at me, louder and louder as I ignored them. I kept struggling with my bindings, closing my eyes and trying to will myself to freedom. It wasn't working. Tired from the effort, wrists and ankles sore from pulling, I flopped back onto the bed, trying to think of another option. At some point I even started humming to myself to block out their voices. If I'd been able to reach I would have stuck my fingers in my ears. I finally had enough, and I let out a horrendous scream. They all stopped cold, staring at me in shock.

 "Fuck off, all of you. I know what this is. I'm in the Fade. So you might as well change to demon form, stop trying to convince me. I know you're not real. I'm never going to let you in, never going to listen. So get rid of the doctor's coat and concerned facial expressions and treat me like the actual prisoner I am, or go away so I don't have to listen to you, until the real Aedan gets here."

 "What made you think it would be Aedan that got here first to rescue you?" I looked up, surprised, at the voice that rang out in the room. British accent. Perfect chiselled face. Teasing grin. Amour covered in dripping...God knows what. "Anyone got any cheese? I'm hungry." I'd never been so happy to see anyone in my life.

 The fake Dr. Alistair and the rest of my 'family', swivelled to face this new threat. Real Alistair tossed a dagger from his belt onto the bed, and I cut myself free of my bonds faster than those around me could blink. Jumping up, unnoticed by the demons, I maneuvered myself into position, grabbed Theron from behind, and drew the dagger across his throat in one, smooth, vicious arc. A hideous noise screeched from his exposed windpipe, and then his body slumped to the ground, changing as it fell to a large, purple, vaguely humanoid corpse. Pride demon. Huh. I wondered how sloth got a pride demon as a pet.

 Alistair grinned at me, raising his own sword in salute before attacking his own clone. We both assumed it would just be an animate creature, but as Alistair managed to get a surprise hit in and decapitate it, the body changed just like demon-Theron's had, only becoming a ghastly, naked, purple-ish woman. Desire demon. Two demons? What the hell?

 Alistair and I both turned on the false Leliana and Aedan now. Leliana just faded out of existence, and I assumed she must have been a construct of one of the demons we had killed. Fake Aedan, obviously a demon, still looked quite corporeal, although from the expression on his face he wished he wasn't.

 "Wait! Just listen to me. None of this was my idea! I got dragged into this when it," demon-Aedan pointed at the headless desire demon, "wasn't able to contain her. She kept almost getting away. It pulled in that, and then me. I have no desire to be here. Just let me go, back into the Fade, and I'll leave you all alone. I'm no threat to you!"

 Alistair and I exchanged a look. While demon-Aedan hadn't actually done anything to me that I could remember, there was clearly a lot about the Fade that I didn't remember, if three demons had been required to subdue me. And regardless, it was a demon. I don't like demons. I shook my head, ever so slightly, and Alistair, understanding, sliced once with his sword and cleanly killed the demon wearing Aedan's appearance. I didn't recognise the demon shape this time - green, slightly glowing - but being surrounded by the three corpses was evidence enough of what it was, if not which variety.

 I turned to Alistair, and he just held out his arms. I fell into them, not crying but desperately needing real human contact. I hate the fucking Fade. After a minute, I pulled back. Now that the demons were dead I tried again and was able to summon myself a set of light armour, like I trained with in Redcliffe, as well as another wickedly sharp dagger. I offered Alistair his back, pommel first, and he took it with a smile.

 "Thanks, Alistair."

 "Any time, Sierra. Listen, you don't have to, but...sometime, will you explain all this? I didn't really understand most of what I saw."

 I reluctantly agreed. He had saved me; I owed him that at least. "How was yours? Goldanna?"

 He nodded, almost laughing. "No matter how they tried I knew I didn't really have a sister. I just couldn't buy into it. Once I remembered, the demon showed itself and I killed it. From the looks of this, you'd have done the same if there weren't three demons keeping you under."

 I smiled, glad that I'd made escaping the Fade even a little easier for him. I squelched the urge to hug him again. Don't get used to it, Sierra. He's not for you. Even in the Fade.

 "So...how do we get out of here?"

 "I don't know. When I defeated the demon, my...uh...nightmare just sort of...dissolved. Maybe this will just take a bit longer since there were three demons here?"

 A new voice joined the conversation. "Three demons? That's weird. Everyone else just had one."

 Alistair and I turned to see Aedan, followed by Sten, and Wynne and Leliana, who both looked somewhat subdued and red-faced. Aedan gave me his patented cross-eyed, tongue stuck out facial expression, and I giggled and launched myself into a hug. Prince jumped around and licked me happily, and I laughed, giddy.

 "Apparently I gave mine a hard time and he called some friends."

 "I'm not in the least surprised, my dear." Aedan gave me a fond look and I giggled. "And Alistair, you escaped on your own? Well done."

 Alistair blushed. Poor guy. Blushes more than me.

 Aedan had us all grasp hands, and then close our eyes. I suppressed a minor fan-girl freak-out when I realised I was holding hands with Alistair. I heard him talking, too quietly to hear, and barely heard Wynne mutter a response. I felt wind on my face for a moment before it stopped. I opened my eyes and found myself, still holding hands, on an island of sorts. It was grassy but dotted with huge rocks, and maybe fifty feet across. Past the edge of the island was just...nothing. Creepy. I giggled as Alistair said it at the same time that I thought it. Standing in the middle of a flat clearing was the sloth demon.

 Aedan chatted with it for a moment, while it promised us whatever we desired. In my head I could hear insidious whispers, promising me things it hurt to even want. Love, family. Alistair. I wanted to believe, so badly...

 "No!" I shouted, and rushed across the island towards the demon. I broke the spell that had settled on all of us, the seductive heady rush of promises. I heard Aedan swear at me, but didn't stop as I ran full speed at the source of the offending whispers. As I charged, Aedan, and then Alistair and the rest of the group stirred, readied their weapons and followed.

 I got lucky - the demon didn't expect us to break free so easily, not without some more conversation at least, and I managed to get a slash in as I dove past, sticky black blood squirting out to coat my hand before it transformed into an ogre. I skidded to a stop just as I heard the gong I knew indicated Alistair had bashed the thing with his shield. Turning, I looked for an opening, but given the way I knew ogres could kick, I chose discretion and waited. Sure enough, between Leliana's arrows, Wynne's spells, and Alistair's, Sten's, and Aedan's slashes, the ogre form faded away leaving a rage demon in its wake.

 Aedan was suddenly wreathed in flame himself, screaming at everyone to back away, and his burning-man form deflected the worst of the damage. Wynne cast some sort of ice spell, and suddenly the thing burst into a dazzling array of sticky, translucent pink crystals as Sten's Asala shattered it. Abomination form was next, and I finally got my chance to sprint back into the fray. I knew, even as I approached, that I should have stayed back, but I was really, really angry. You don't get to mess with my head and get away with it. I stabbed my dagger deep into the abomination's back, distracting it enough that Aedan shredded its neck with his own daggers.

 The abomination gave way to a shade. Alistair actually threw himself between the shade and I, and while he held its attention, Aedan was able to slip behind and disable the thing before I got reoriented. As the shade in turn transformed into an arcane horror, I felt Alistair's hand clamp on my upper arm just before the shockwave he'd used on me the day we first met rumbled across the creature, slamming it to the ground. The only reason I was still standing was Alistair holding me up, but I knew I'd have a hand-print shaped bruise on my arm. Somehow, just through fighting together all this time, Aedan and Sten had realised what he was about to do, and had gotten out of the way.

 The demon finally stayed down, and all six of us stopped to pant for a bit. Niall popped into existence, reminding us about the Litany of Adralla, before saying reluctant good-byes to Aedan and Wynne. The next thing I knew, I was awake, picking my very dirty self up off the ground. Niall was indeed dead, and Wynne closed his eyes and crossed his arms on his chest before picking the Litany up and joining us.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen: Templar Twister

 "Sierra, I can see that you're a very useful person to have around, with your impressive knowledge of what is about to happen – however it is that you come by it." Wynne shot me a look that was part suspicious disbelief and part frustration. "However, I suspect that you'd be less than helpful if you ended up dead before we finished this. As the person who's going to have to save you if you get yourself injured, can I respectfully request that you stay out of the fighting when possible?"

 I appreciated that she didn't use my less than epic fighting skills as the excuse, though the condescension was still galling. On impulse I stuck my tongue out at her in lieu of a response, and she actually choked as a laugh tried to escape while she still wore that sour expression. Feeling terribly immature, and quite self-satisfied at the same time, I turned away and walked to the next door I knew we had to open if we wanted to move on.

 Eventually everyone else joined me, and Alistair pushed open the door. We fought our way through the rest of the fourth floor, none of us enjoying the dragonlings that seemed to have taken over. Sten largely took to stomping on them, which was both gross and funny, and wouldn’t have worked for anyone shorter than the giant. I stayed back as requested, though we got jumped from behind somehow a couple of times so it didn't help as much as Wynne had hoped.

 "Andraste’s flaming sword, who keeps dragonlings in a sodding place of residence?" I couldn't agree with Alistair's sentiment more, even if the curses still made me giggle.

 We finally found Cullen, and it was even worse than the game had lead me to believe. The poor kid's mind was broken, and I truly wondered if anyone would ever be able to put him back together. Wynne and Aedan both tried to reassure him as much as possible, but none of us were willing to slaughter all the mages out of hand - it would have ruined any chance at keeping Arl Eamon's family intact, in addition to just being very, very wrong - and we had to leave him, sobbing and praying.

 Aedan had convinced Wynne to take and use the Litany, so after a brief reminder, and a warning to everyone to protect the mages who'd not yet been forcibly turned, especially Irving, we finally headed up the stairs into the Harrowing chamber.

 As in the game, Uldred was surrounded by Abomination lackeys. A couple dozen bound, exhausted, injured mages were on the floor around the room, and Uldred's abominations were in the process of performing some sort of ritual which turned a poor young mage, screaming defiance, into yet another abomination.

 Aedan again tried to talk Uldred down; I admired his diligence, but come on, the guy's an abomination! Finally realising that a fight was inevitable, Aedan slipped around to his side as Alistair bashed him in the face with his shield. It left Uldred with a bloody nose, and a rather nasal pitch to his voice. Note to self: hug Alistair later. Then he turned into the form of a pride demon.

 As requested, I stayed back. Not that it was difficult to do so – I was terrified, and felt sick. The abominations were hideous, misshapen things that were much worse than I’d imagined in game. The smell of the corruption in the rest of the tower had inured me somewhat, but it was stronger in the Harrowing Chamber. Instead of getting involved, I watched for signs that Uldred was about to turn another mage and reminded Wynne to use the Litany. It’s a good thing Wynne has the book – I’d probably freeze up and forget how to read. Sten, Prince, and Leliana took on the three other abominations.

 The strategy seemed to be working until somehow the demon that had been Uldred managed to kick Aedan back and push Alistair over, then drain Wynne's mana - the elderly woman slumped, and I worried she'd actually fall over. Quickly, before anyone could recover, he caught both Alistair and Aedan with spells. Aedan actually froze into a man-shaped popsicle, and Alistair appeared to be paralysed. Uldred started chanting again, and I was suddenly terrified that he'd manage to shatter Aedan like we'd done to some of the demons earlier.

 I took a few steps forward, planning to charge him with my dagger, but my fear was almost overwhelming. I heard Wynne reading from the Litany again, and Sten roaring at an abomination as he cut it down. I screamed in fear, and suddenly the hair on my arms rose like it had when I'd seen darkspawn Emissaries in past. A blast sounded, I could feel a rumble across the ground, and several of the bound mages appeared to faint. At the same time, both Uldred and the one remaining lackey started leaking blood out of every orifice. Uldred screamed, the word 'no' echoing across the harrowing chamber, as both he and the other abomination slowly crumpled to the ground.

 Suddenly there was near silence. I could hear Alistair panting, still paralysed, as well as Wynne and Sten. Leliana lowered her bow, and there was the tinkling sound of falling glass as the ice broke away from Aedan and shattered on the floor. We all looked around at each other, trying to determine what had happened.

 A few of the bound mages groaned, stirring, and Wynne rushed over to one, a grey-haired man I recognised as Irving. The rest of us spent a few minutes untying mages, rubbing bound hands to get the circulation going, offering sips of water and what reassurances we could. They all claimed to have been drained of mana, like Wynne, though they weren't quite sure how, but it slowly started recovering as they were able to rest and relax.

 Finally Wynne approached with Irving in tow, introducing him to our little group. When she got to me, he stepped forward and shook my hand before she could finish.

 "Thank you, templar, for your assistance. I don't know that many could have managed both Uldred and the other abomination like that. I shall tell Greagoir that he has trained his people well."

 As a group, we all stared at him in open-mouthed shock. I was the first to react, stepping to the side so Irving and I both faced Alistair.

 "He's the templar, First Enchanter, not me. You must have been confused."

 Alistair objected. "Almost templar. But I didn't actually use any templar abilities in that fight."

 "No, young lady, I was not confused. I may be old, but I am not yet senile. I've been exposed to templar abilities before, though not as powerful as your own. There's no mistaking the source when someone smites you, once you’ve become used to it. I don't know which specific ability you used, but you drained the mana from every mage in here, including Uldred and the abomination."

 "But I'm not a templar." I stopped myself from babbling the rest of my train of thought...I've never trained as one, or taken Lyrium, or spent time in the Chantry. I can't even fight. And I've definitely never met Greagoir! I was suddenly very worried. If Irving told the templars that I used one of their abilities, I doubted they'd be lenient. They would want to know where I learned it, how I got my hands on Lyrium...they'd imprison me, or worse. And then when I disappeared into thin air, they'd label me an apostate, assuming Irving was wrong. I pulled Aedan and Alistair aside and explained my fears.

 "He must be wrong. I'm not a templar - how could I be? I'm not even from Thedas." I suddenly had a thought. "The power surge! Maybe that's what happened." Seeing the confused looks on their faces, I tried to explain. "At home, my body is being kept in a...uh...a building that healers use to take care of sick people. And like I've said, we don't have magic so we rely on machines. In the building are machines that can monitor someone's illness. A little while back, when we fought that revenant, there was a...sort of like a bolt of lightning hit. It broke a bunch of the machines. I wondered if I might have somehow conducted the power through whatever connection I have to Thedas and that's what killed the revenant. Maybe it happened again? Could that be what Irving felt?"

 No one could confirm or deny that theory, and so, shrugging, we turned back to the problem of a group of mages thinking I was a templar. We pulled Wynne into the discussion, glossing over who I really was but promising to explain later; she immediately saw the problem, with an added twist:

 "Even if we can convince all of these mages not to mention you, Greagoir knows everyone in the tower and that you weren't with the group when they entered. In addition to explaining templar abilities, we need to explain your existence." My face must have gone pale, because Aedan put a protective arm around my waist. "I don't suppose you could just choose to, ah, pop out as you call it? If we could manage that privately before we get downstairs, they might just forget about you."

 I shook my head. "I can't control it. Though I've been wondering if it triggers shortly after being really upset about something." Aedan raised his eyebrows, but I shook my head and refused to meet his gaze. "So if one of you knows how to scare me half to death or find a convincing way to hurt my feelings really badly, then we wait around for a day or so..."

 "What about a disguise? Put you in armour with a helmet, hope no one asks questions? When we get to the main entryway, you leave right away before everything gets explained? We can all play dumb, claim we thought you were a templar from here, and when no one can find you... The mages don't know anything, and I'm sure we can convince Irving to delay telling Greagoir about you."

 "Interesting idea, Wynne.” Aedan looked thoughtful. “Because the only alternative I can come up with is to tell the truth. Tell Irving, see what he thinks. Tell Greagoir. And then, if necessary, be prepared to fight our way out if they try to capture you."

 "No, Aedan!” The thought of them fighting the templars was freaking me out. “Worst case scenario, let them take me. We all know eventually I'll disappear, and I can find you when that happens. It seems I can find you even when we don't want me to, so...I guess I can live with them thinking I'm an apostate."

 "Let's try the disguise first,” Wynne decided. “Greagoir is an honourable man, but some of his templars are...overzealous. I don't want you left in their hands if it can be avoided. Let me go talk to Irving. I'll promise to explain everything later. I think he'll go along. You go find some armour."

 “Wait. Wynne? One more question. What was the name of the mage who helped Jowan destroy his phylactery? Do you know?”

 She looked at me strangely. “Solona.”

 “Where is she now? What did they do with her after Jowan escaped?”

 “She’s still here, child. Under ‘supervision’. Why?”

 “Do you….think Irving would let her be one of the mages who comes with us to Redcliffe?”

 “Why would mages be coming with us to Redcliffe?”

 “Humour me. Assuming that some are, can we arrange for her to be one of them?”

 She gave me another piercing look. “I will ask.”

 Aedan and Sten remained to help take care of the mages and back up Wynne, if required. Prince, as usual, happily followed Aedan around. Alistair, Leliana and I went scouring the tower for armour. I wasn't sad to see my disgusting clothes go, especially once we found the locker of a female templar who was roughly my size. There was a clean set of leather armour, similar to what I'd been practicing with in Redcliffe, with a full helm. I changed, with Leliana's help, and Alistair declared me to be 'very templar-y'. We strapped a sword and shield to my back, to complete the picture, although I could barely lift them so I hoped no one asked for a demonstration of my abilities.

 We met back up with our group, and we all had to assist the exhausted and terrified mages down the stairs to the main level. Once we reached the large doors Greagoir had barricaded, Irving called out and convinced him to let us through. He was a good actor, that old man; he waited, pretending to be breathless and needing a moment to gather himself, while I divested myself of the mage I'd been supporting and slipped out the front entrance with no one the wiser.

 Outside there was only one templar - the one who had rowed the boat over, I guessed - and I avoided him and snuck off to the side, leaning against the side of the tower entrance, hidden by a stone outcropping. I waited for what felt like hours, though was probably only one hour. No one came or left during that time, to my relief; the boat templar hadn't been paying a lot of attention, but surely if he thought he'd realise there was nowhere for me to go. Fortunately, the next time the massive door opened, my group of companions emerged, with Wynne accompanying them as planned. I fell in beside them as they headed to the boat, and sat beside the other templar, taking a turn at rowing without complaint, and without removing my stuffy helmet.

 When we docked, I got out with the group, crossed my arms across my chest and slightly bowed to the templar, who returned the gesture, and then walked away with my companions. We waited until we were out of sight of the dock before all of us let out a big sigh of relief. Leliana spontaneously hugged me, and I giggled, half-hysterical. Safe.

 It was actually early morning - the night had come and gone while we battled inside, and though we were all exhausted we pushed onwards to try to make good time back to Redcliffe. Apparently the mages that were going to help with Connor were taking their own boat directly to the castle, and would likely beat us there; we had been given the option of accompanying them, but Aedan had declined, listing our own boat, docked a short ways away, as the reason. He was determined to make it there by nightfall; we would all have a day to recover onboard while we sailed.

 I knew by her expression that Wynne was probably burning with curiosity, but I was quite honestly too tired to talk and walk at the same time. I handed off the shield and heavy sword at the first opportunity, and Alistair chose to carry them with us in case I needed a disguise again in the future. I hoped that wearing armour would just generally make me blend in with the others, and perhaps I wouldn't be noticed at all. By late afternoon Wynne, Leliana, and I were all lagging; Sten had obviously been through worse and seemed unfazed, while Alistair and Aedan had that damned Grey Warden metabolism, so as long as they ate they could keep going much longer than the average person. Prince seemed content as long as there were new smells to be sniffed, and didn’t seem affected at all by the fatigue.

 I was tired enough that I couldn't keep my mind out of the gutter, and it kept returning to the question of whether their stamina was also better when it came to - so inappropriate, Sierra!

 We finally reached the dock where our boat waited as night arrived in full. There were apparently two cabins for us, each with two beds. I declared that I would share, since I was obviously an unplanned extra, and ended up tucked into a narrow but adequate bed with Leliana. Sten elected to sleep on the floor so the guys didn't have to share. I started to giggle when he announced this - apparently guys are weird around each other in every world when touching or sleeping is involved. With how tired I was, the giggles became guffaws, and Leliana practically had to drag me to bed with tears running down my face. I'm sure Wynne expected we would talk when we got to the cabin, but I undressed and was asleep the second my head hit the pillow.

 In the morning, I was still on the boat and not in hospital, for which I was thankful. Apparently sometime during the night in our narrow bed, Leliana and I had cuddled. She was spooned behind me, with one arm loosely around my waist, and I had one foot resting on her leg. I stayed put for a while, not wanting to disturb her, and my mind wandered to other people that I would have liked spooning with in a narrow bed... but my bladder was becoming insistent and I finally had to wake her up.

 She was mortified, apologising even as I tried to reassure her. Why she still thought I was a homophobe I don't know, but I finally succeeded in convincing her it was fine. What did make me laugh was that as we were discussing it, we were still in bed, cuddling. We finally untangled ourselves, which left me grinning and her scarlet-faced with embarrassment. Yay it's not me blushing for once! We took turns using the chamber pot, which only enhanced the colour in her cheeks. The bisexual bard is modest? I never would have guessed. Emerging from the little cabin, we found the others around a table virtually right outside, and I burst out laughing again as Leliana drew a variety of strange looks when she scurried away.

 The only unoccupied seat at the table was between Aedan and Alistair, and directly across from Wynne. I hopped the bench, gratefully accepting some bread and cheese from Alistair, and then turned my attention on Wynne.

 She jumped right in, headfirst, with the big question.

 "So. Where are you from?"

 I went through my usual explanation. My world, reliant on technology not magic. The 'performance' where I could watch Thedas through a window. The dizzy spells, and somehow waking in the Korcari Wilds. Coming and going ever since, usually at inconvenient times. I left out that somehow I changed the course of history, my mere presence somehow saving the King and the Commander of the Grey. I forestalled Aedan when I could see that he was about to ask what had happened in Redcliffe before I disappeared from there - this was for Wynne's benefit, for starters, and not everyone needed to know about Theron's mistake either.

 I could see she was skeptical, and because I had popped into existence here instead of Redcliffe, I didn't have my useful assortment of obviously non-Thedas items. And I changed out of my clothes back at the tower, leaving me with only my boots and a very grimy jacket. I passed these over, and she examined them briefly. Aedan showed her the safety pins, Swiss army knife, map, and flashlight that I had sent with him when they left Redcliffe, but as they came from him I wasn't certain she would believe. He also showed her the notebooks I had written outlining as much detail as I could remember or could find on the wiki about the different areas and the fights. He assured her that I had written the one about the Circle Tower weeks before they arrived, but again I couldn't be sure she would believe that.

 Finally, she agreed to discuss things with me in private, and I followed her back into the cabin she had shared with Leliana and me.

 "I will start, Wynne, if that's okay. Morrigan tells me that a skilled charlatan can figure out the answers by which questions are asked, so I'll just volunteer what I know.

 "I know you are a Senior Enchanter, and have never wanted to spend your time in the Circle Tower. You are one of the few mages who does not think that the Circle should run itself, who doesn't hate the templars and the Chantry. You were at Ostagar and saw Loghain's betrayal. I know that you were the one who led the counter-argument to Uldred's in the meeting that began the disaster at the tower.

 "I also know that you died, before Aedan and the others reached you. Saving Petra, I think? A benevolent Fade spirit, who you had felt watching you when you went into the Fade for years, brought you back, and became somehow stuck inside you. And it is weakening, slowly, though you have more time left than you think.

 "I know you had a son a number of years ago, who is a mage in the Circle in Val Royeaux. His name is Rhys, and he's a very, very good man. You should be very proud of him, Wynne. I've no idea who his father is, though I've always wondered if it was Greagoir." Her face paled, slightly, and I realised I was right, and for some reason, that frightened her. "Pure guesswork on my part, and I would never tell anyone else my baseless speculations." She nodded, understanding my implication, face returning to normal colour.

 "Your greatest regret is failing in the training of an elf named Aneirin. You were young and impatient, and you feel you were a poor mentor. He escaped from the Tower, and you fear the templars killed him. However, they never found him; he's alive and well, living in the Brecilian forest, not with the Dalish but at least in contact with them. He is happy, Wynne, and he bears you no ill will.

 "So. That's what I know about you, and trust me, I won't tell anyone else your secrets. They all have their own, and I won't betray them or you.

 "Do you have any questions for me?"

 Wynne appeared thoughtful, and she opened her mouth, taking a breath, then closed it again without speaking multiple times. I waited, patiently, while she worked through it.

 "You sound like you know what will happen to me."

 I nodded. "I can't guarantee that it hasn't changed - me being here has changed a number of things, so the future I knew already isn't the same, but I know what happened to you according to the performance."

 "And can you tell me?"

 "I can, though you need to be sure. I don't know the ultimate outcome for any of the others, but for you I do. However, I don't want it to taint the years you have left, knowing when and where you will die."

 "You say years; I suppose that's probably enough for now. I wasn't convinced I would see the end of the Blight."

 "You are way stronger than that, Wynne. The Blight will be over, and you will live several years after that. If you want to know more, think about it and ask me again."

 "I'll think about it."

 "So the big question is, do you believe me?"

 "Sierra, you appeared from thin air right in front of me. I'd have to be mad to try to deny it. I never questioned that you were from somewhere else, and you proved the accuracy of your foreknowledge in the Tower. I just wanted to know how." Wynne gave me a smile, and I breathed a big sigh of relief. Wynne was the one I had most worried about convincing.

 "So…since you know my future, do you have any advice for me? Aedan told me you gave him recommendations. I'd be curious to know what you might have to say for me."

 "Uh..." The question floored me. I had to think for a minute, and then realised there were some things that always bugged me in the game. "Two things. One is don't call on the spirit on purpose to lend you strength unless it's a truly hopeless situation. It weakens it, shortens your life, and makes you faint. It's not pretty."

 "I'll try to keep that in mind, though I don't really know what you mean by calling on the spirit. And the second thing?"

 "Just try...not to be judgemental. At some point Aedan or Alistair may end up in a relationship. And you will disapprove, if the performance is correct, worrying that they won't be able to do their duty as Grey Wardens because they are in love. I just want you to wait before expressing that opinion. Because you will change your mind, but telling them how you feel will wound them both more than you know. Both of them are much better men than anyone will give them credit for, and will always do what is right no matter the cost to themselves. So try to...just be happy for them, when the time comes?"

 "I will think about it. And, dare I ask: which of them will be in the relationship with you?"

 "Me? Neither. That's just not in the cards, for me. They both deserve better."

 Wynne raised her eyebrows, examining my face.

 "I...see." She didn't; I could tell. It didn't matter if she understood or not, as long as I did. “What about Solona?”

 “Well…I was just worried about her, knowing what I know about how Greagoir felt after she aided Jowan. And I thought we could maybe get a chance to see if I could help her.”

 “You’re going to get Aedan to conscript her, aren’t you?”

 “Only if she wants.”

 Wynne’s expression was unreadable, and I could tell I wasn’t going to drag any more from her on the subject.

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen: Time for Truth

 We rejoined the others, and I gave Aedan a slight nod as I sat down. He smiled at me, and I rested my head against his shoulder for a moment. Leliana was back, her expression tightly controlled, and I was briefly tempted to try to rekindle her blush, but decided that would be unkind. Aedan, Wynne, and I discussed the ritual that was to take place in Redcliffe. Wynne was skeptical, but Aedan and I both thought Morrigan was the best choice to enter the Fade. The question was how to get her to agree to it. My suggestion was to appeal to her pride - for Aedan to tell her that he didn't want to impose on her, but that he wasn't sure any of these other mages could do it, and ask her to help him choose someone. He wanted me to convince her, but I knew he could do it, and he needed to stay firmly in everyone's mind as the leader.

 I also suggested that Aedan try to get a few moments alone with Solona – assuming she was in Redcliffe – and see if she wanted to be recruited. He was the Grey Warden – I figured the offer should come from him. The conscription would certainly have to, if she agreed.

 We sat around the table or wandered the deck of the boat for the rest of the day. I was a tad seasick, having never been on a boat before, until Wynne used some sort of spell on me and I felt better. After that, sailing on the lake was glorious – sun shining, not excessive wind, and relatively warm. The spray from the water felt nice, though it made me wish for more – I was still sticky and disgusting from the corpse Alistair had dropped on me.

 We docked in Redcliffe late in the evening. We were met there by Bann Teagan, with a few of the knights and a very subdued Theron. Both men nearly jumped out of their skins when I disembarked, and I hid my smile behind my hand. Theron had the grace to look embarrassed, and I noticed Aedan narrowing his eyes in response.

 Apparently the mages had already arrived, and were in the process of readying the ritual; it would be morning before anyone could enter the Fade to rescue Connor. As we walked up to the castle, Teagan handed a piece of paper to Aedan, which was tucked into a pocket before I could blink. Morrigan joined us, pointedly telling Jowan to wait outside.

 Teagan managed to suppress his questions until we were inside, safely in the library. "My lady! I thought I'd lost my mind when you disappeared. Morrigan assured me you would be fine, but I was still worried. And why are you wearing armour?"

 I hesitated, but we had all decided to tell Eamon about myself and Theron anyway, and given the way I left Redcliffe, I couldn't justify further lies.

 "What has Morrigan told you?"

 "Not much. She's a hard nut to crack." She smirked, and I gave her a thankful smile.

 "She was protecting me. But I think it's safe to tell you everything. Are you all okay with that?" I turned and met each of my friend's eyes, getting cautious nods from Aedan, Alistair, Leliana, Morrigan, and finally, after a thoughtful moment, Theron. "Leliana, would you be a dear and grab my pack out of our room?" She nodded and scampered off.

 "I have to apologise, Bann Teagan. You see, for reasons of our own, each of us has secrets to hide, but mine are perhaps some of the biggest. I have lied to you, since we met, about many things. And I am sorry for that, though I had no choice at the time. If you'll promise not to act on what I tell you until you've heard the entire story, I will tell you the truth. Though you need to know that in this instance, the truth may put you in danger."

 He gave me his word, and for the second time in two days I launched into the explanation of where I came from. Leliana returned in the midst of this, and I started passing him items to back up my story. Having seen me disappear into thin air, he was moderately easier to convince than the rest of our little group, which was good because I knew nothing personal that I could use to convince him.

 "So, you can see, I am not a noblewoman, just a mystery in disguise. And the disguise was necessary, because there is another truth I was hiding. There were some survivors from the battle at Ostagar. Most of them from the rear of the vanguard, however, there were two from the very front line - one is a Grey Warden who has left on Warden business, but the other..." I gestured at Theron. "Take a closer look at my so-called bodyguard, my Lord. It might help to imagine him as a blond."

 Teagan turned his piercing gaze on Theron, who stepped forward, posture changing subtly to look more authoritative, more arrogant. Teagan studied his face, and I noticed him glancing surreptitiously at Alistair from the corner of his eye. Finally someone else notices the resemblance! He turned to look at me, and I could see recognition, but then a question in his eyes. I shook my head slightly. No, he doesn't know about Alistair. Don't blow it. He turned back to Theron, crossing his arms in front of his chest, and bowed deeply.

 "Your Majesty, I cannot excuse myself enough. I should have recognised you sooner, Nephew."

 "Well, Uncle, that was rather the point of the disguise, wasn't it? No one takes too close a look at a noblewoman's mercenary bodyguard." He smiled and embraced the Bann warmly, and Teagan relaxed slightly. I stepped back in, speaking before Theron got fully back into King mode.

 "So I apologise, my Lord, for the deception, but it was the best way we could come up with to safeguard Theron, now that Loghain is angling for the throne. He dislikes the necessity of hiding his existence, but we have convinced him it is necessary. I hope we can count on you to keep this secret? You must continue to treat him like a nobody. If anyone sees you defer to him, or call him 'your majesty', Loghain will stop at nothing to have him (and anyone who knows about him) executed."

 Teagan nodded, bowing his head to Theron in acquiescence. He looked thoughtful, and I imagined he would have a lot of questions later. During the discussion, some of our group had slipped out, so by the end, there was only Theron, Aedan, Alistair, and myself with Teagan in the library. Once it seemed he was convinced, Aedan excused himself and asked to speak to Theron privately. The two left, and I was alone with Alistair and Teagan. He waited until we heard the footsteps recede, and then Teagan spoke.

 "Maker's breath, how did I not see it? Alistair, you and he could practically be twins. But...listen, I think he knows, or maybe at least guesses. I don't know how - some servant gossiping about you perhaps? But some of the things he's said since you left, Lady Sierra..."

 "Just Sierra, please. I'm not a noblewoman, I never was." I blushed and refused to meet his gaze. "But, my lord, what do you mean about Theron? What did he say?"

 "I can't remember exactly. Something about royal bastards running around the castle, I didn't pay attention to the rest. Though...I was quite annoyed, actually. If it hadn't been for you, Sierra, I probably would have turned him out for being impudent." I stood stock still, furiously trying to think. What had I said, exactly? Oh God, what have I done? My hands covered my horrified face of their own accord, and I felt both Alistair and Teagan reach out to steady me.

 "Sierra?" Alistair asked, voice kind. "Are you alright?"

 "No, I'm really, really not. I'm so sorry, Alistair. I swore I'd never tell anyone, but I think I screwed up. I think I accidentally told Theron."

 "What? How-"

 "I was angry. The reasons don't matter, now. But I told him...something like why didn't he go seduce another serving girl, because what was one more royal bastard in Redcliffe Castle? I'm so sorry Alistair. I can't believe...I'm so stupid...I just don't think before I talk sometimes."

 Alistair sighed, but to my surprise, squeezed my hand gently. "It's okay. We knew he'd figure it out eventually, whether Eamon or Loghain or someone else told him. I guess at least here we have the chance to deal with it before it gets ugly in public."

 "Promise me to stay away from him until I talk to him? Please? Let me fix this, as much as it can be fixed."

 "Oh don't worry about me. I've no desire to have my execution ordered by my King. I think I feel the need to sleep in tomorrow." He turned to leave, bowing slightly to Teagan on the way. I watched him sadly, then turned back to Teagan. We were alone.

 "I'm sorry, my lord."

 "I thought we agreed, no more titles?"

 "That was fair, my lord, when you thought I had a title as well, but I don't. I'm not a noblewoman, I don't even have the same status as a serving woman - I'm not Fereldan."

 "Ah. You think this is why you couldn't be with someone here?"

 "Only one reason of many, my lord."

 "Many? I didn't think we were that bad. And if I'm the noble and you're not, you have to do as I say, right? So that means...at least in private, you will call me Teagan. Alright?"

 "Yes, Teagan, many. I would have thought it was obvious. You're a noble, I'm not. I'm not even clear that I'm really even human in this world, or if I’m just insane and you a figment of my imagination. Even if you're real, I'm fairly certain that me vanishing into thin air isn't going to go over well at parties. And then showing up again, who knows where, with weird clothing..."

 "Sierra, if you didn't want them to be, those reasons wouldn't be enough." I opened my mouth to object, and he held up a hand to stop me. "Peace, woman, I'm not being pushy. I can see the forest despite the trees. Your heart belongs to someone else. I don't blame you - he's a good person, and deserves someone like you. For the record, you definitely picked the right brother. I just hope you will let him in, when the time comes." I blushed crimson, looking down.

 "Thank you, Teagan. But as you will eventually see, I have nothing to offer you or anyone else." I swallowed, my voice thick with emotion that I refused to let out. "I'd like to change the subject. Will you keep an eye on Theron when we go? He seems to listen to Aedan, and I've managed to shame him into behaving a couple of times, but...I'm afraid he's going to forget the minute we're out of sight and start trying to order you to provide him an escort and march directly on Denerim. Can you manage him, until we get back? Honestly, if it means you have to lock him up in the dungeon, will you do it, for the good of Ferelden?"

 "In this...performance of yours, he didn't survive, did he?"

 "No. Alistair was forced to take the throne, and he was brilliant at it, despite hating every minute of it. I am glad Theron survived, but good God keeping him alive in spite of himself is proving to be a chore."

 "I'm amazed you want to, really. I confronted him, when you disappeared. He didn't confirm anything, and clearly had nothing directly to do with your disappearance, but I can guess what happened to make him look so guilty."

 "Please don't. Aedan will kill him, if Alistair doesn't. They're too honourable for their own good. It was a stupid mistake, one he paid for in humiliation, and I won't risk everything to let someone defend my non-existent honour. Just don't speculate, okay? Not even in your inside voice." At this Teagan laughed, and I blushed into a red-faced grin. Stupid earth sayings.

 "In answer to your question, yes, I will manage him, somehow. But you better be around to back me up and keep me from the executioner's axe afterwards."

 "I swear. And I'll have words with Aedan and Alistair, just in case I'm not."

 "Can I ask you something?" I nodded. "You're not Fereldan. This is neither your world nor your fight. With your knowledge, you could just run away. So...why?"

 "I..." I had to think. How to explain? "Where I'm from, my life is safe but horrible. Nothing scary ever happens, but I also don't ever feel like I can make a difference. I'm an anonymous nobody. I have no family, no friends. At the moment I don't even have a job. I'm not leaving anything behind.

 "Here I can maybe make a difference. Besides. We're in the middle of a Blight - where would I go? And honestly, I'm not even sure I have a choice. You saw what happened when Aedan and Alistair left me behind. I just disappear and catch up to them. God forbid they ever separate - I might end up as two skinny dwarves instead of one human." I giggled, and Teagan laughed.

 "Being in two places at once sounds useful, actually."

 "Doesn't it? I might just have to try it and see what happens."

 With another laugh, I finally took my leave and headed to the guestroom I was in before. Approaching the door with dread, I stepped inside with a sigh of relief. Leliana was nodding off in the chair, though she jumped up as the door swung shut.

 "I thought you might like some company. Though after last night I wouldn't blame you if you sent me away."

 "Leliana, seriously? I enjoyed the cuddle. I'm not freaked out. Relax, okay? I trust you. Now get your ass into that bed and go to sleep."

 And we both did.

 In the morning the mages had finished preparing, and Aedan had discussed the situation with Morrigan - successfully, obviously, since she volunteered when the lead mage asked who would be going. Unlike in the game, Irving himself was not present, but a whole slew of templars were. Connor's sleeping form had been moved into the middle of a circle of seated mages, and Morrigan sat beside him, taking his hand in her own. She looked up at us, telling us to go away and stop staring at her, then nodded to the leader to begin.

 I had already donned my light leather armour, and with practice sword in hand I went out to the courtyard. I warmed up as usual, and then Wayne had me actually practice with the sword on a scarecrow stuffed with hay. I watched and then tried to mimic the strikes he taught me, only somewhat managing to avoid tripping over myself. Shaking his head, he took my sword away again and instead handed me an actual dagger, though the blade was dull. I felt much more comfortable with this, and was much more successful at not falling down as I slashed and stabbed at the dummy. He tried me with a second dagger, and my coordination suffered a bit, but I was able to compensate.

 The obvious conclusion - that I was apparently a rogue, at least I might be if I trained for another 20 years perhaps - stunned me. I never played rogues in games, always chose to be a mage, or a ranger, or if forced to fight in melee, a sword-and-shield warrior type. I had never thought of myself as dexterous; I thought I disliked the sneaky stuff. Though I had to admit that in an actual battle, when I was one step from throwing up on myself in fear, being sneaky didn't seem so bad really.

 And it was one more defense against Irving’s assertion that I was a templar...unless the game was wrong and rogues could be templars in reality.

 The sound of snorting laughter brought me back, and I realised that I was stabbing at a mostly destroyed practice dummy with both daggers flying, showing no finesse and a fair amount of pure fury. I stopped, embarrassed, trying not to listen to the jokes flying about the little girl and her pointy daggers, though I walked a little taller when I heard a couple saying things like "Remind me not to get on her bad side!"

 I needed to talk to Alistair.

 I needed a bath.

 Torn between conflicting needs, I handed Wayne back both daggers with a blush and an apology, then headed back into the castle - both needs were within. But which to do first?

 My question was answered as I literally ran headfirst into Alistair in the hallway. I bounced off him, managing not to fall, to my relief. As I stepped back, I realised he was holding a towel, a pile of clean clothes, and soap. I narrowed my eyes - he wasn't anywhere near a bathtub - and then grinned.

 "Having a shower?" He blushed and stammered. Poor Chantry boy. I decided to rescue him from his own painful degree of innocence. "Go, don't let me stop you. But after...would you meet me? I think we need to talk."

 He agreed, and we elected to meet up in the main hall once I was done bathing and he finished showering. I rushed to have a bath drawn up, and sank into it gratefully as I scrubbed away equal measures of sweat and frustration, washing my hair twice for good measure. I'd washed up on the boat as well as I could, but without shampoo I wasn't convinced my hair was even close to clean of blood and gore.

 Afterwards I put on my linen dress and bound my hair up - Teagan had suggested we maintain my status as a 'lady', so I wasn't supposed to go around in pants and a shirt, to my annoyance. I headed to the main hall and found Alistair chatting with Teagan, both laughing over stories of Alistair's youth. Teagan gave me an impish smile as Alistair jumped up when he saw me. I blushed, avoiding his eyes, and followed Alistair upstairs to the same balcony I'd gone to with Teagan.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty: Unanswered Questions

 I was reluctant to break the silence, at first, and more afraid of the answers I might get to the questions I needed to ask. Alistair stared out over Redcliffe Village, expression distant. I turned to sit on the wall of the balcony.

 "It was you who left me this." He showed me the amulet around his neck, the one that had been fixed by Eamon. I nodded.

 "Why didn't you say anything?"

 "You were sleeping, and I didn't want to disturb you. And I didn't want to draw attention by giving it to you with others around."

 "I suppose you already know how much it means to me, but thank you."

 "Did Duncan tell you much about her?"

 "A bit. He promised to send her a letter asking her to come to Ferelden at some point once this crisis is ended. Can you believe I'm half an elf?"

 "You seem a bit tall for an elf, I admit."

 "I don't exactly know how I feel about it. I mean, when I thought she was dead, my upbringing made sense. But now..."

 "You wonder how she could have left you." He nodded. "She wasn't given a choice, is how. She's unique, for the Grey Wardens - somehow she is no longer Tainted. Not subject to the Calling. I wouldn't be surprised if you end up having to go to Weisshaupt to see her, instead of hoping she comes here - they will never want to let her go. They want to 'study' her. If she kept you, you'd have been used as a hostage against her. And against Ferelden, had they figured out who your father was. She was trying to save you from them."

 "You sound so bitter about the Grey Wardens."

 "Everything I've read, everything in the performance...Duncan, and you and Aedan, are such honourable men. And from what you've said, many of those that died at Ostagar, too. The other Grey Wardens really...aren't. They've taken the whole 'the end justifies the means' thing way too far, and somehow lost their humanity in the process. Kind of like the templars, actually. Truly, the only hope I have for the future of the Grey Wardens lies with you and Aedan."

 He looked uncomfortable, and I chose to change the subject, give him some space on the topic.

 "So. Is there any way for you to check if someone is a templar?"

 "Unless you use a templar ability like holy smite on me? No."

 "Well, you were standing nearby when Uldred died. Did I use holy smite then?"

 "No. However, you could have used an ability that only targets mages - or other mana-using creatures - for example, and I wouldn't know. In theory, anyway."

 "You're a big help." I sighed, sliding my back down the wall to sit on the floor, curled up with my chin on my knees. "Okay well, are you aware of any templar ability that would do...what happened to Uldred?" The image of the abomination with blood spraying out of his eyes, nose, and mouth made me nauseous, and I tried to think of something else. I ended up looking up at Alistair's handsome face, and felt better.

 "I'm not. But...I wasn't a full-fledged templar, either. It's possible there are some skills I never learned, or some way that Lyrium grants more abilities." Alistair slid down to sit beside me.

 "Alright, well...can someone who is a rogue be a templar? Or are they all warriors?"

 "I doubt the divide between those is as big as you think. If your question is whether someone who leans more to dexterity than strength can be a templar, the answer is yes."

 "I hate you right now. You know that, right?" He grinned half-heartedly. "Okay, here's one. Have you ever heard of someone being born with innate templar powers? Or do they have to be trained?"

 "I've definitely never heard of innate abilities. Everyone I ever knew had to train, though some had to work harder at it than others. I think the key was the discipline, being able to clear your mind of everything but what you were trying to do. Those who were good at the discipline found the abilities came easier."

 "Well, that clinches it, then. I'm no templar. I've never trained, I lack even the most basic discipline, and my mind was definitely not focused during that fight with Uldred - I was screaming in fear for you and Aedan. It must have been that electricity thing from back at home."

 Alistair grimaced. "A random lightning strike? With specific effects that mimic a templar's abilities? And happening this often? Do these 'surges' happen often, normally? It seems like a poor system, if yes."

 "Well, no, they don't, but...it makes more sense than me being some sort of innate templar freak, doesn't it?"

 "I just don't know, Sierra. Some part of me hopes you are a templar, mostly so I could rub it in the face of the Revered Mother where I was trained. She spent a lot of time trying to make me feel guilty for not being keener to finish my training, for making them waste the effort on me. Someone with abilities like that without them and without Lyrium...yeah, that would be kind of fun. As to what they would do to you if it was true and they found out...I don't know."

 We sat silently for a bit, shoulders barely touching. Between the stone I leaned on and the wind, I was cold; between the cold and my fear, I started shivering slightly. Alistair put his arm over my shoulders, offering his warmth, and I leaned into him, but the shivering wouldn't stop. I tried to hold it in, was furious as a couple of tears trailed down my face. Alistair looked down in surprise as one of them splashed onto his hand.

 "Oh, blast. Don't cry, Sierra. We will figure it out. And Duncan, Aedan and I won't let anything happen to you."

 "You can't promise that. I appreciate that you want to, but...you can't even promise to survive the Blight, given what I know Duncan told you. And that's assuming I don't just disappear and end up in the middle of the darkspawn horde. No one can keep me safe, Alistair." There was no reply to that, and so he just sat, providing comfort and warmth all at once.

 I wiped a couple of frustrated tears away, finally forcing the shaking to stop. We sat for another few minutes while I collected myself, and as we stood the door to the balcony burst open and Aedan came through with Prince, with eyes flashing, and a face like thunderclouds. It was a good testament to how angry he looked that Alistair stepped in front of me, arms out, as Aedan barrelled towards me. Even Prince got in front of him, growling. Protecting me? From Aedan?

 "You will tell me what happened, Sierra."

 "What? Aedan, what is wrong?"

 "You told us you thought disappearing might be triggered by emotional upset. What did he do?"

 "Aedan, I have no idea what you're talking about. What's going on?"

 "I've been trying to get the truth from Theron, but he won't say. Morrigan knows something, but she wouldn't either and now she's busy. Don't act stupid. What did he do?"

 "Nothing, Aedan. Please. Stop. There's nothing for you to go poking your nose in. Just let it go, okay?"

 Alistair had stepped to counter any move he tried to make towards me, and the two men were coming close to wrestling as he kept trying. Aedan was practically growling in frustration, and I finally thought to intervene. I put one hand gently on Alistair and moved him to the side. Prince reluctantly let me pass.

 "He won't hurt me. It's okay." I approached Aedan, hands out. When I reached him, I put my hands on his shoulders, ducking down to meet his gaze. "Aedan. I'm fine. Everything's fine."

 He was almost shaking with rage. I held his gaze, trying to reassure him. He finally slumped a little, the tension draining out of him, and I took the opportunity to give Alistair a look, motioning my head towards to door leading inside. He gave me a skeptical look but I nodded and motioned again. Finally he acquiesced and practically tiptoed inside. I'd never noticed before, but Alistair could move quite quietly when he tried. When not wearing armour, at any rate.

 Left alone with Aedan, I waited for him to finally speak. When he did, his words surprised me.

 "I'm sorry, Sierra, if I scared you."

 "I've never been scared of you, Aedan. Scared for you, yes, but not of you."

 "It's just...you're the only family I have left, Sierra. Well, Fergus, too, but I’m not going to see him anytime soon. You are my sister, regardless of where you were born. I left the rest of them behind, knowing they'd be slaughtered. I swore to myself that I wouldn't do the same again, that I'd protect you, and then I left you here. With him. And you can deny it if you want, but I know he did something. I could see it on his face, and he tried to rub my nose in it this morning, thinking I was a jealous lover."

 "You don't have to worry about him. I may not be able to protect myself from darkspawn, but I can certainly manage one idiot. Trying to brag is just a symptom of his wounded pride. You want to know what happened? I kicked his ass. He surprised me with an inappropriate advance after I had already told him no. I didn't realise it was him, when he surprised me - I tossed him to the ground and almost slit his throat. And I held him down there until he realised I was serious. He won't bother me again, I don't think. His fragile little ego wouldn't allow him to be bested by a woman twice, I suspect. He didn't hurt me, I promise. And you need to let it go - he's your King."

 "Sierra, I...I just couldn't...if anything happened to you..."

 "How's this. Next time someone tries to seduce me, I'll let you kick his ass. Deal?" He snorted, and I giggled.

 "Oh and just who do you think is going to try?"

 "Well, let me tell you, if Sten tries I'm definitely calling you to help." Now we both started giggling, and that's how a frightened-looking servant found us a few minutes later.

 "My lord, my lady, Bann Teagan requests your presence in the main hall."

 We collected ourselves and Aedan offered me his arm to escort me downstairs. Before we went, I quickly explained the problem that Theron may have learned about Alistair's parentage. He promised to think about any possible damage control for that problem. As we drew close, it became obvious why we'd been requested. We could hear multiple voices talking, but the one that stood out was Isolde's high-pitched Orlesian accent, crying and exclaiming. The mages had finished their ritual; Connor was awake.

 Entering the main hall, Isolde knelt at the front of the room, hugging a very dazed-looking Connor to her breast. The snooty Orlesian annoyed me to no end, but even I was forced to smile at the emotional reunion. Alistair stood by himself, expression a mix of pleasure and longing. It tugged at my heart seeing him look like that, especially for this horrible woman who had treated him so poorly. I had to struggle with myself not to run over and hug him. Aedan rescued me by excusing himself and heading over to clap his hand on the templar's shoulder, distracting him with some sort of conversation.

 I looked around the rest of the room; Leliana was talking with Theron and Bann Teagan, with Sten glowering nearby; the mages were talking amongst themselves, and Morrigan stood alone, expression aloof. I went over to her, drawing a surprised grunt as I drew her into a hug.

 "Thank you, Morrigan. I know this seems like a waste to you, but on behalf of all of us, thank you. I wouldn't have trusted the others to do it right." She studied my face for a moment, and I wondered if she thought I was mocking her. Seeing no humour on my face, she finally smiled slightly and nodded.

 "'Twas nothing I couldn't handle." I smiled and turned to draw her towards the others with me. She reluctantly followed. Leliana gave me an odd look, but I couldn't help it. I felt sorry for Morrigan. She had no idea how to relate to people, knew she was disliked, and had not the first idea how to deal with it. All of her icy demeanor was a self-defense mechanism. I decided to make it my personal mission to break that down.

 As we reached the group, one of the mages approached me, and I turned toward him, pushing Morrigan into the empty space beside Leliana. The mage handed me an envelope, and then slipped away before I could ask anything. I looked at it - the flap was sealed with wax, stamped with an insignia I didn't recognise. As I ripped open the envelope, I tried to preserve it to show Aedan later, just in case.

 Inside the envelope was a thick piece of paper covered in neat handwritten script. I had to look at it a couple of times to understand it - no one at home uses cursive anymore! - but was able to figure out that it came from Irving. As I glanced at it, I realised what it contained was not meant for casual eyes. I folded it up, tucking it into my armpit where it wouldn't be seen, then slowly eased my way to a doorway and out. I found myself in the hallway with the library, and snuck in there to read more closely.

 Lady Sierra,

 I hope this finds you well. I wanted to let you know that your interest in templar history is quite natural, and no one here in the tower will think strangely of you for your research. I would love to hear what you learn, someday, and hope to meet you again in the future to discuss it.

 I thought you would be interested to know that one of the mages visiting you knows more about templar history than anyone else, and can probably answer any questions you may have. I trust him completely, and will not even ask him to reveal your research to me upon his return should you choose to discuss it with him. If this is of interest to you, seek out Enchanter Tanar before they leave.

 Respectfully,

Irving

 Dear Irving! I realised he must have managed to keep me secret from Greagoir, and his letter was vague enough not to implicate me had it been intercepted. I may have to kiss him next time I see him.

 I tucked the letter into my bra, then snuck back into the main hall hoping no one noticed my absence. I asked one of the servants if she knew which one was Enchanter Tanar, and she pointed out a slightly balding elf whose age I could not start to guess. I edged toward him, then approached the group of mages as though to thank them for their help, 'accidentally' bumping into Tanar first. I spoke with him for a few moments, making a big show of shaking his hand and looking grateful. He watched me curiously, but responded appropriately to my show of thanks. After a moment, realising no one was looking at us, I murmured to him that I would like to speak with him before he left for the Tower, and asked him to find me in the library after the noon meal. He nodded, looking confused, but I left him before anyone would notice my interest in him.

 Teagan and Isolde threw a lunch feast for the mages before they sailed. The entire castle seemed to be present, celebrating Connor's 'return to health'. Apparently a rumour had been circulating that whatever had afflicted Eamon had similarly struck Connor, and everyone was subtly encouraging this to cover up the truth. The servants seemed to believe that Connor's recovery meant Eamon would also recover, and were truly celebrating.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-One: Testing

 I ate lunch anxiously, trying to determine how to ask the mage what I wanted to know without totally giving myself away. Also, I wondered if I should invite Alistair to the meeting. Deciding that it would be useful to have an 'almost' templar to blame questions on, I motioned to Alistair to follow me after the meal. He gave me a weird look but complied, and a glance at Aedan had him drawing attention to himself, hiding our escape to the library. I showed Alistair the note that Irving had sent to me, and explained that I had asked Enchanter Tanar to meet me. Just as I finished, the man himself entered the library.

 I introduced Alistair and myself, and we all settled into chairs. I spoke first.

 "Thank you for coming, Enchanter Tanar. I appreciate it."

 "I admit to being slightly intrigued, my lady. Not many mages are requested for personal audiences, unless they need healing. For which, if you require, I would recommend Enchanter Wynne instead of myself. My healing skills are rudimentary at best."

 "No, no. Thanks for the offer, but I'm not looking for a healer. I actually am looking for some knowledge I believe you may possess. I'm hoping to ask you some questions. About templars."

 "You wish information about the Templar Order? May I ask why?"

 I'd thought about that a lot. "Well, you see, my friend here was in training as a templar when he was recruited by the Grey Wardens. And since he didn't complete his training, he is left not knowing a lot of things he probably should. I was led to believe that you may be able to answer many of the questions. I am trying to understand what he's going through - I'm sure you can imagine why I'd like to know more." I gave Alistair a fond look, winking carefully with the eye Tanar couldn't see, when he shot me an incredulous stare. "Don't worry, I'm sure we can trust the Enchanter's discretion, dear." I can’t believe I’m even pretending to be sleeping with Alistair.

 It worked. Any suspicions seemed to be laid to rest, and Tanar relaxed. "You can, I give you my word. I can certainly try to answer your questions. What would you like to know?"

 I started with some basics about templar training, learning little more than I had through the game. Templars required discipline, and mental fortitude, and training. Their abilities were likely a form of magic but not the kind that tempted demons, so they were not at the same risk of becoming abominations as mages. They learned faster when taking Lyrium, and were likely stronger, although that seemed not to be universally believed. He felt that it was possible the Lyrium addiction really was only to keep control over the templars who might otherwise desert or disgrace themselves.

 We moved on to the more complex topics.

 "So can anyone be trained as a templar?"

 "Well, yes, to some extent. The basic abilities can be taught, but there are certainly some people who are better suited than others." He paused, but seeing my interest, continued. "Some people seem to have innate talents that allow them to learn more advanced abilities than others. And the order is quick to take advantage of that when they find it - only those who seem talented advance to hold authority. They do not promote those with mediocre abilities."

 "Alistair mentioned that those who were better at the discipline were stronger in their abilities."

 "That's true in a general sense, in the way that someone with a better attention span learns to read faster than someone with a short one. But there do seem to be other unrelated differences as well, just like some people can make good scholars despite a short attention span."

 "And what innate talents make a good templar?"

 "I've never been able to determine that for sure, to be honest. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with birthplace, bloodline, or basic personality traits, that I can find. If the Order itself is aware, they have managed to keep the secret remarkably well."

 "So...is there any way to test who can learn more advanced abilities?"

 "Sort of. If someone has not trained as a templar, a rough idea of how difficult it will be to train them can be determined by a mage who knows what to look for. Alistair, you may not remember if you were taken in by the Chantry as a child, but at some point before they began training you, you'd have been brought before a mage, and made to stand while he or she seemed to simply stare at you while holding a small flame in their hand. After that they would slot you into training based on how the mage rated your potential abilities. They seem to use guilt to...push those who they believe capable of more than the average."

 "Well, they were good at wielding guilt, no question. Mind you, being the practical joker of my dorm, I probably deserved it, and not for any innate abilities." Alistair and I shared a grin.

 "So...could you describe some of the 'advanced abilities' that can be learned?"

 "That's very difficult actually. Each templar has some variation in even the basic skills - some can narrow the target to a single person, while others can expand to unlimited targets, for example. The advanced skills are even more variable. Some templars can injure mages more if they have more mana to drain. Some can drain multiple targets at a time, others can resist even the worst blood magic, but couldn't drain the mana from a kitten. Some can smite anyone, others can refine it to just impact those using mana."

 Alistair was nodding at most of those, and I saw the mages eyes widen slightly.

 "Alright, well...for example, could a templar drain the mana from a number of mages, and then somehow cause one or two of them to sort of...explode? Like, blood coming out of their eyes and things?"

 Tanar's eyebrows rose, and he levelled an impressed look at Alistair. "If you can do that, young man, I am amazed the Chantry let you go without threatening an Exalted March."

 Alistair shook his head. "Not me, no. I saw someone else do it, once."

 "Not many templars can do it; at Kinloch, Greagoir might be the only one who can use a mage - or a number of mages - to fuel a spell like that. Though they are told it can’t be used for purposes like that."

 "Are you saying that he'd be using magic to do that?"

 "More like...forcing others to use magic, without their consent. The mage being drained doesn't even need to know the spell being cast to make that work."

 I looked to Alistair to see the same horror on his face that I was sure was also on mine.

 "So it's like enslaving a mage and forcing them to do magic they don't wish to do?"

 "I...can see how it would seem that way.” He paused, seeming to consider his words. “But it's more like, oh, say someone mixes up weed killer for a garden. And then someone else steals that weed killer and uses it instead to poison their unfaithful spouse. The poisoning wouldn't have been possible without someone to mix weed killer, but the person who made it was neither responsible for the use to which it was put, nor was he enslaved by whoever stole it. He was just short some resources because he had to mix more weed killer for his garden.

 "The mage being drained may only intend their mana be used in a certain way, but the templar doing the draining can repurpose it, for good or evil."

 The horror abated a bit, but I knew this would still give me nightmares later. Please God, don't let me be the one with those abilities. Alistair finally spoke up and asked the million-dollar question. Oh sure, now that I don't want to know, you chime in.

 "So are you one of the mages who knows how to test for templar abilities?" Tanar nodded. "Would you be willing to test Sierra? I'm just so curious if I could ever train her to be like me." Laying it on a little thick, aren't we? Bastard.

 Tanar agreed, although he suggested we not be in the library when he would need to summon a ball of flame. We headed down into the basement, standing in a rarely used storage room, currently devoid of anything but dust.

 He asked Alistair his range on his usual abilities, and had him stand well outside that range, while we stood near each other on the opposite side of the room.

 "Do I have to stare into the fire or something?"

 "Not unless you wish to. All I need is for you to stay nearby." With that, he whispered something under his breath, and suddenly a small ball of orange flame bloomed in his hand. He held it out, then closed his eyes, silently waiting. As we waited, the ball very slowly enlarged, and the colour became more vibrant, and I watched, fascinated. I started feeling that same crackling aura I had felt around the darkspawn Emissaries and Uldred, the hair on my forearms standing up, goosebumps erupting all over me. I continued to stand, quietly, unsure what to do with myself and feeling strangely edgy from the aura. The sensation continued to grow as the ball of fire got larger, and my skin started to itch.

 In the distance, I heard a loud thump and a short, sharp scream. I jumped as the sudden noise startled me, and I wondered if we were under attack. Tanar gasped, beside me, and I turned back just in time to see his face go pale, the fire ball wink out, and him slump to the ground. I caught him as he fell, easing him onto the cold stone floor. Alistair checked outside the door, discovering that the sound was nothing more than a servant in a nearby room who'd knocked over a crate of supplies. He came back over to check on the unconscious mage. I'd ascertained that he was still breathing and had a pulse, but had no idea what else to do. Alistair and I shared a worried look.

 "Should I go...I don't know, get one of the other mages or something?"

 "Uh...I don't know. Did anything like this ever happen when you were in training?"

 "No. I've never seen a mage faint before for no reason."

 "Well, maybe...get Wynne? And try not to be too obvious about it. I'll stay here in case he wakes up."

 Alistair agreed, helping me shift the unfortunate Tanar onto his back in a slightly more comfortable looking position, then running out of the room. I sat beside the mage, hand on his pulse, watching his face closely for any sign that he was waking. After a minute or so, he sort of twitched a little, and then a low, quiet groan echoed across the room.

 "Enchanter Tanar? Are you awake?" He opened his eyes, expression pursed in confusion.

 "What...what happened?"

 "I'm not sure. All of a sudden you just sort of slumped over." He looked thoughtful, and I could almost see the memories slowly returning to him. He struggled slightly, and I helped him sit up.

 "I was testing you."

 "So you said."

 He thought for another few moments. "Cruel trick, asking me to test someone who's already a templar."

 "Pardon?"

 "Maybe you didn't know, but testing someone who is already trained like that can be dangerous. I hadn't even used enough mana to light a candle, and you snuffed it out, while draining me completely. If I'd put more into that spell, you could have harmed me."

 "But...I didn't do anything." He watched my face closely as I said this, and I saw my own puzzlement reflected on his face.

 "Tell me exactly what happened."

 I described the ball of flame, the crackly sensation, being surprised by a loud noise, then turning back in time to see him faint. His eyebrows drew closer and closer together as I spoke.

 "That's...not possible. You're sure you've never trained?"

 "I swear it."

 "But...you could see my visualisation of the spell before I had committed the mana to it. Even Greagoir can't do that. And you drained my mana while distracted? That's not supposed to be possible. Most templars require years of training to perform the most rudimentary of abilities without intense concentration. The way you describe it...it's like yours was triggered by the distraction."

 "But I didn't...I mean, I don't know how to...I'm not a templar!"

 Alistair returned with Wynne at that moment, and she rushed over to check on Tanar. As she touched him, she looked surprised, but then muttered under her breath and I felt the crackling aura again for a brief moment. Tanar relaxed, suddenly, looking much more comfortable, but he didn't look away from my face.

 "You felt that, didn't you?" I nodded. He looked over to Alistair, who was kneeling beside Wynne. "Did you?"

 "Did I what?"

 "Feel that. The spell Wynne just cast. The rejuvenation."

 "Uh, no?"

 He looked back to me. "No, my friend, you are not a templar." I almost sagged in relief. "You are something...more. You have abilities beyond any I have ever heard of, sensitivities that should not be possible. And yet you do not use discipline, you rely on emotional turmoil to trigger these abilities. I have no idea of what you may be capable, especially with training. But I would very, very much like to find out." Oh great. You've got to be freaking kidding me! How in God's name did that happen?

 I spent the next few minutes, with the help of Wynne, convincing Tanar to keep what he knew to himself. I begged, she semi-threatened, and we secured his confidence in return for a promise that next time I saw him, I would update him on any new abilities I had learned. He recommended I spend a bit of time figuring out my range, so if ever needed, I would know how far I had to be from a mage to drain them. With Wynne having rejuvenated him, he was able to cast his little ball of fire again. It seemed that no matter how small he kept it, my range at least for detecting magic was greater than we could test in the castle, and didn't hinge on line-of-sight – I could feel that crackle even from several rooms over.

 We decided that emerging all together in a group upstairs would draw unwanted attention to what we had been doing, so Alistair went upstairs first, followed by Tanar, and finally Wynne and I followed, arm-in-arm, pretending we had just been for a walk. Aedan gave me a look, but no one else seemed to notice.

 The mages were in the process of organising everything to leave. We all thanked them once again, Connor's shy smile a reward of its own. They finally took their leave, heading down to their boat at the docks – all except two, who watched the group leave and then walked away together to meet up with Jowan. As a group, we decided to meet in the much-used library for a planning session. On the way there, Theron approached me and grabbed my arm to pull me aside.

 "You didn't tell your new lover about us."

 "Theron, I swear to God if you don't let go of my arm, I will scream for everyone in the castle to hear all about us. Mostly about the part where you touched me, uninvited, while I was changing. And then about the part where I held you down in the water and gave you that nick. If you really want to re-ascend to the throne known as the 'would-be rapist King who was beaten up by a nearly naked girl', I suggest you keep acting like this. Otherwise, grow up." I tried to pull my arm away, but he held on and I wasn't strong enough to break his grip.

 "The King himself isn't good enough for you, but you'll make eyes at his bastard half-brother?"

 "You know what? I could only ever wish to be good enough to deserve your half-brother. Do you know that if you had died, he would have hated every minute of it, but he would have done his duty? He would have done his level best to preserve your memory, protect your scheming bitch of a wife, and take care of your people the way you could never be bothered to do. You don't deserve him as a brother. Why don't you spend your time trying to find ways to be a better monarch, rather than ways to confirm for me why I don't want to sleep with you?

 "Now this is your last warning. Let me go, and do not touch me again."

 I finally ripped my arm free of his grasp, storming off to the library. I stopped outside, trying to decrease the flush in my face, and the anger that was still overflowing, before entering. I needn't have bothered - Aedan took one look at my face and his clouded over; I could practically see sparks when he spotted Theron coming in. Fortunately the room was rather full of people, and he could do nothing about it. Everyone finally gathered, and before they could start talking, I revealed what Alistair and I had learned from Tanar during the day.

 Everyone looked shocked, and some sort of skeptical at the revelation. All I could do was shrug and say "I guess we will see" in response to the myriad questions that were thrown out. Theron's response was the most interesting, to me.

 "So...you did save us. At Ostagar. It wasn't some random mage. It was you."

 "I...suppose. I mean, there were a bunch of Emissaries around, I could feel them, so I suppose I could have drained them to somehow...shield you, or something. And maybe to kill a bunch of them which allowed Arl Bryland's men to escape."

 "I guess I'm supposed to thank you, then." The bitterness in his voice surprised even me, but I decided to ignore it.

 "Don't. I had no idea what I was doing then, and I still don't now. Don't thank me for a happy accident."

 The group all watched this interplay with a mix of confusion, concerns, and anger on their faces, but not one said a word. I was grateful. Aedan, as usual, rescued me before it went on too long by clearing his throat.

 “We have a potential new Grey Warden recruit. You were right, Sierra – Solona was miserable, and I’m half-convinced they were still going to have her executed. She has elected to stay in Redcliffe for now, and think about whether to join us. The Circle has assigned two templars to stay here and watch over both Jowan and her, as well as Connor, until she’s made up her mind and Eamon is awake. If she chooses not to, she will go back to the Circle when the templars take Connor to the Circle and Jowan to be made Tranquil.”

 I winced at the news, not surprised, but still somewhat sympathetic to the idiot mage. He didn’t deserve to be Tranquil, but it was quite clear to me that blood magic couldn’t be allowed to persist. I shrugged and tried to put it aside. It was the same choice I had made, playing the game.

 Aedan then pulled out the piece of paper I'd seen Teagan hand him the previous night. I'd forgotten about it in the rush of everything that had happened.

 It turned out the paper was a letter that had been delivered to Redcliffe during our little jaunt to the Circle Tower. It was addressed to Aedan, care of Bann Teagan, and consisted of a short note and a map. The map was one of Ferelden, with several major landmarks but not much else on it. It was passed around the room as Aedan read the note aloud.

 "Dear Aedan, I know your sister loves maps, and I hope she finds this one complements her collection. I got it from her favourite Andrastian scholar, so I hope she sees the care with which I chose this gift. Please give her my highest regards, Tomas."

 Theron raised his eyebrows as Aedan read the note out loud, but I ignored it. The map was passed to me, and I stared at it for a while, uncomprehending. We needed a map to Haven, so surely that must be what he had sent, but there certainly was nowhere like Haven marked on it. I knew where it should approximately be, based on the map I'd brought with me from the wiki, and so I pulled out my own version to compare side-by-side. The map he sent looked to be quite ancient, made of a thick rough parchment and covered in paint that had dried into an interestingly abstract patina if you looked up close. I held the map near my face, examining the interesting paint, when I noticed that a few of the cracks were not exactly the same as the rest. Some of them were clearly random, from paint drying, but some looked artificially formed, as though someone drew a scalpel through the damp paint before it completely dried. The cracks were too perfect, and too deep. And they happened right in the area I knew Haven should be, based on my own rough print-out.

 I handed it to Leliana, and she confirmed my opinion. "This map appears to be ancient, but I think it's actually a forgery of an ancient map. Looking so old, if anyone had intercepted it they would have assumed it to be the courting present he described. But if he had it made to look old, then he'd have been able to alter it. And these cracks aren't natural. I think he's marked the roads leading to Haven."

 Everyone else looked somewhat skeptical, but Leliana and I were in agreement, and after studying my face for a moment, Aedan nodded.

 "Well, then we have our next destination. I think we should leave as soon as possible. I know we're all still tired, and we don't have to push very hard the first few days, but I propose we leave tomorrow morning." Everyone nodded, universally looking resigned. "Theron, you will stay here. The official story is that the Lady doesn't need a bodyguard traveling with our group, and as such is loaning you to Teagan to protect him since so many of the Knights have yet to return, and many of the soldiers perished."

 "I'm coming with you." I spoke quickly, not allowing the statement to even hint at being a question.

 "Agreed, Sierra. We can't have you disappearing from the castle anymore, so we will just have to hope that when you pop out, you will pop back in somewhere nearby." I nodded, relieved.   Theron snorted, looking disgusted, and went as if to leave. Aedan called him back, and then dismissed everyone else but me instead. With reminders to get sleep so as to be fresh for the morning's journey, the room slowly emptied. I waited anxiously, unsure what Aedan would do or say given how he felt about Theron at the moment.

 "Theron. We are counting on you to maintain your charade, to ensure no one figures out who you are while we're gone. You will train with the knights, but mostly follow Teagan around as a bodyguard. I have asked him to keep an eye on things, and to 'arrest' you and keep you in the dungeon if he thinks anyone will guess who you are, for your own safety." He forcefully met Theron's gaze, and finally, after a few moments of what looked like a pissing contest from my vantage point, Theron yielded.

 "Also, I understand you have figured out that you are not Maric's only child. I don't suggest you have to like that fact, nor would I suggest that you and Alistair need to become best friends. But I'd ask you to keep the information to yourself, if only to prevent anyone from scheming to take the throne from you using him. And I hope that you will keep in mind that Alistair is an honourable man. A good man. He doesn't want your throne, wants nothing to do with the succession, and is no threat to you. And he can't help who his parents were any more than you can."

 Theron refused to make eye contact and appeared to be childishly sulking, and Aedan seemed to decide to take it as assent. He offered me his arm and escorted me to my room, keeping Theron from ambushing me in the hallway again. I got a quick hug, a sloppy kiss from Prince, and then I slipped inside to find Leliana repacking our things, adding several sets of linen clothing to my pack, including nightgown-type dresses. Where did she find the time to go shopping? She insisted that I bring two sets of armour - the set I'd 'borrowed' from Redcliffe had apparently been gifted to me, as well as the armour I wore out of the Circle Tower. She was basically finished as I entered, and as I looked at her uncertainly, she smiled and pulled me into the room to help me change clothes. She chattered about nothing important as I let my hair down, and immediately curled up with her back pressed against mine for warmth when we climbed into the bed. The last thing I recall her saying was "I guess I'm not allowed to call Alistair my favourite templar anymore." I fell asleep mid-giggle.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Two: Side-tracked

 In the morning was another early sendoff, all of us meeting Teagan and Isolde in the main hall for breakfast before we left. I’d have preferred it if Isolde had not joined us – she still pissed me off. Despite wearing armour and carrying two daggers - one of them given to me by Wayne right before breakfast, who then disappeared before I could thank him - Teagan insisted on treating me like a noblewoman, kissing my hand when I entered, holding my chair and offering his hand to help me up after. He offered me food off his own plate, and when I gave him a strange look, he merely gave me a smug smile and continued on. As we left, he kissed me softly on the cheek, whispered for me to take care, and then smirked again before turning to go back inside. That was when I noticed Theron, standing along in the shadows, glowering at us. I rolled my eyes and walked away. I swear, all men are brain-damaged.

 I met Solona only briefly, and while I was curious about her, and she was clearly wondering who I was, we didn’t really get a chance to chat.

 We went to collect Bodahn and Sandal first, and Bodahn almost jumped to see me in armour. He offered me a seat on his wagon, which I declined, although we did all gratefully stow our gear on it. As we headed east, I turned for one last look at Redcliffe before it was out of sight. I noticed Alistair doing the same, and we traded slightly embarrassed smiles.

 As we walked we discussed what was coming up. It seemed likely that we had at least two weeks of travel to reach Haven, and we were debating going to Honnleath first, assuming we ran into the merchant with the broken control rod. I voiced the opinion that more help when facing insane cultists and a dragon was better than less, and everyone finally agreed. We decided that if we found the merchant before the Honnleath turnoff, we would go there first.

 We also talked about the likelihood that Zevran would attack us before we made it to Haven. I described the scene - a woman alone begging help against the bandits - and the fight, with the tree being knocked over, the archers on the hill, the woman being a mage. I had Aedan sort-of convinced to spare Zevran, and although Alistair seemed reluctant he agreed to at least question the Crow before executing him.

 Our first day was uneventful, and we made good time. The road leading out of Redcliffe was raised, paved with stones, and quite well maintained, so even the wagon had no difficulty. We camped in a small clearing Morrigan found for us just off the road and protected by trees. We ate, mostly fresh food from the castle, and set up our tents. Leliana volunteered to share with me before I had any chance to worry about the sleeping arrangements, and I shot her a grateful look. Once settled, I sat down near Alistair and asked him if he'd be willing to train me.

 "Me train you? You're the super-templar, aren't you? You don't need me to train you."

 "Okay, it's possible I have some weird inexplicable skills, but Alistair, I don't know how to use them. I have no control when they happen, for all I know I could accidentally blast Wynne or Morrigan because I don't know how they work. And I may have some of the 'advanced lessons' or whatever, but I can't even do the basics. Please? I'm afraid I'll get myself into trouble, or worse - hurt some of you. Please teach me?" I looked up at him, and saw his face, which had looked somewhat irritated, soften.

 "I'll make you a deal. I'll try to train you in what I know. But when you learn some control over your skills, it will be your turn to train me. Agreed?"

 "You didn't have to barter for that, Alistair. If I could, I'd teach you everything I know now. I'd truly rather that the competent fighter have the skills, not the untrained clumsy girl with a pointy stick she'll probably end up impaling herself with at some point."

 Alistair laughed, and it seemed like some hurt had been mended - his smile was brighter, and he sat taller. He agreed to train me, and started me off with some exercises to clear my mind. It was sort of like meditation, and at first I was terrible at it. I fidgeted, got distracted by Leliana tuning her lute, got sucked into listening to a conversation where Aedan was trying to convince Sten to tell him about the Qun. Every time my attention wandered, Alistair talked me back, and by the time I crawled into the tent I was sharing with Leliana, I had managed to keep my mind clear for about half an hour. He told me that it was ‘pretty good for my first try’.

 Oh, good. I love being patronised. I had to concede that was probably just my insecurity speaking.

 We had set our usual watch rotation, waking one or the other of the Grey Wardens every couple of hours, and the night passed peacefully. In the morning, I had finally managed to get comfortable in my bedroll on the hard ground, and cursed loudly at Sten as he tromped through the camp waking everyone before it was even fully light out. Leliana had already gone out to start breakfast, and I was seriously considering going back to sleep when the tent collapsed on me. I shouted, and heard Aedan snicker and then rapid footsteps as he ran off.

 "I'll get you back, you bastard!"

 "My parents were married!" was his only reply, and against my will I found myself laughing, and alert. I'd never have been able to fall back asleep even if I wasn't being suffocated by a tent.

 I crawled out of my bedroll, scooting out of the tent and raising the tent pole again so I could don my armour and pack my gear. That done, I packed Leliana's as well, then folded the tent up and started towards Bodahn's wagon with both packs and the tent. I only made it a few paces before Alistair rushed over to help me. It occurred to me that I had never thanked him for all the times he'd helped me when I wasn't strong enough to carry my own things or keep up. I smiled up at him, brilliantly, as he put everything on Bodahn's wagon, then grabbed his shoulder, going up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. He blushed, as did I, and I ruthlessly suppressed my libido as it perked up on contact. That meditation just might come in handy for more than templar abilities.

 We got underway, heading further east, moving briskly but not so much as to leave us out of breath or sore the next day. My armour came with boots, but they were neither comfortable nor well-fitting, so I stuck with my own leather hiking boots. We'd been walking maybe two hours when I noticed both Alistair and Aedan start looking uncomfortable. Aedan's eyes began darting around, and Alistair actually unslung his shield from his back. The rest of us picked up on their obvious agitation, and began loosening weapons ourselves.

 "Darkspawn?" I finally asked.

 Aedan nodded. "Following us, I think."

 Morrigan must have noticed us faltering, or perhaps she saw the darkspawn themselves. The black bird circled around us twice, then turned off the road, and we assumed she meant for us to follow her. We did, climbing down off the road and into some heavy brush. We pushed through, hurrying, until we found Morrigan the woman standing in a clearing, partially surrounded by high boulders. We quickly boosted Leliana and Wynne up to stand on one of the tall rocks, and then I followed them, scrambling up as Alistair heaved me up by my rear end. There was no time to be embarrassed at the accidental intimacy, as Aedan was hissing at us to hurry, and he, Sten, and Alistair stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the rocks we perched on with Prince growling at their feet. I couldn't see Morrigan, until I noticed one unnatural branch sticking out from between the trees, and realised she was in spider form, hiding.

 I sat, huddled into a ball, daggers still in sheaths in case I needed to climb down. Leliana knocked an arrow, and Wynne muttered something; at the same time that I could feel that crackling magical aura, I suddenly could sort of see a vague shimmering wall in front of the three of us. We waited just a few moments, and then the first of the darkspawn approached through the trees. Leliana's bow twanged, and the beast went down, an arrow protruding from its eye. Our elation was short lived, however, as a large group of the creatures stepped up into the space where he had been standing, and one of them returned fire. The arrow bounced off the invisible wall, landing harmlessly below us, but if the wall hadn't been there, it would have skewered Leliana neatly. We both flinched involuntarily, but as Leliana recovered, the rest of the group were in the fray. The rocks kept those on the ground from being surrounded, and it was almost hypnotic to watch Sten swing, Alistair bash, and Aedan slash at the attacking horde.

 Just as the main group of darkspawn engaged, Morrigan-spider inched out from between the trees, locking massive fangs onto the nearest darkspawn and ripping its head from its shoulders. Prince erupted from between two of the creatures, biting into the axe-wielding arm of a hurlock, preventing a lethal swing at Aedan, instead driving the axe into the flank of the genlock beside it. Leliana focused on picking off the archers, and Wynne was constantly chanting, sparks of magical energy flowing into those in the scrum, and every now and then freezing one of the beasts to be shattered by Alistair or Sten. It looked like a well-oiled killing machine, and I was impressed at the same time that I wanted to cry.

 With no major injuries, my companions quickly finished off the last of the group. Sudden silence descended, and I realised I'd somehow blocked out the shouting, screaming, grunting, and clashing during the battle. Leliana lithely sprang down from the rocks, and Sten assisted Wynne gratefully as she healed a small wound under his arm. Alistair offered to catch me, but I declined, not wanting to repeat my brief humiliation from the climb up. Alistair’s hand on my ass isn’t going to improve my mental state at all. He shrugged and wandered away, as I turned and slithered down the rock, bracing myself between it and its neighbour. I landed upright, possibly even gracefully, and took half a dozen steps across the clearing when I heard rustling behind me, and then a shriek as a hurlock rose from the battlefield, apparently not quite dead. I had spun as soon as I heard the rustling, drawing my daggers almost reflexively. I might turn into a fighter yet - my first instinct isn't to scream and swoon, yay me! I was face to face with an enormous, pale, terrifying creature with blood running down its face, which smelled worse than a landfill.

 I waited for a mere moment, and the hurlock lumbered forward. I vaguely heard shouting from my friends behind me, but I couldn't spare the time to actually listen to what they said. I crouched slightly, expecting the disarmed darkspawn to throw itself on me, and was completely unprepared as it angled slightly past me instead, aiming for the rest of the group. I turned with it as it passed, and slashed out with the dagger in my left hand, accidentally burying it in the hurlock's back. It staggered and went down again, yanking the dagger from my hand, and then I saw a sword slash down, and looked up to see Alistair with a grim frown decapitate it. He reached down to remove my dagger, wiping it off on a scrap of cloth worn by the recently dead hurlock, and then handed it to me pommel first. I took it, stunned, and sheathed both of my weapons automatically.

 "You okay?"

 "I...yeah, I guess." My vision swam for a moment, and my legs didn't want to move - Aedan rushed up, wrapping his arm around my waist, dragging me off a ways from the pile of corpses. When we were all far enough away that we could no longer smell them, he let me sink to the ground and then sat beside me, holding my hand.

 The group all looked somewhat grim, but most of them only showed concern for me. I guessed they'd all been in combat enough times that it wasn't anything big for them, but it still shook me up every time. While Sten and Alistair piled corpses, Morrigan burned them, and Wynne insisted on checking me out, though it seemed that, again, I was the only one not at risk. We talked about that again - no one had ever heard of a darkspawn ignoring the closest target like that. We discussed the weirdness for a few minutes until an impatient Morrigan cut in.

 "Since no one has any useful information to add to this subject, perhaps we'd best be moving on? Or are we hoping to test it again by waiting for another group of darkspawn to come by?"

 We had to concede the point, and I picked myself up, giving myself a mental pep talk to get myself moving again. No one wanted to be anywhere near those corpses come nightfall, so we pushed ourselves hard for the remainder of the day, finally arriving at a campsite Bodahn knew of just after nightfall. We set up as usual, then I spent some time working with Alistair on my meditation. I did less well than I had the day before - images of darkspawn kept breaking my concentration. Finally frustrated, I gave up, promising to try again the next day.

 I slept poorly, waking from bad dreams several times. I finally crawled out to the fire to let Leliana get some better rest, but found both Aedan and Alistair there before me. Both looked haggard and somewhat glum, and I took an educated guess at what was wrong.

 "Grey Warden nightmares?" They both nodded. "I'm glad I don't get those. I have enough trouble sleeping. Who's on watch?"

 "Sten, technically, though I sent him to bed. If we are going to be up anyway, no point in him missing out on some sleep."

 "Tell you what. I can be groggy tomorrow, since I'm not the one fighting. You guys can't. Why don't you both bring blankets out here and curl up by the fire, see if you can sleep again." It took a bit more cajoling, but I finally managed to mother them both into lying down, one on either side of me. I kept the fire at a slow burn, and as I expected, soon saw both chests rising and falling regularly in the rhythm of sleep. Amazing how knowing someone is watching over you makes sleep possible even in the worst circumstances. I found myself humming songs from home, softly, under my breath.

 Aedan looked younger, asleep. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but there were almost imperceptible lines of pain on his face that smoothed out when he slept. I fought the urge to ruffle his hair. I had a different urge with Alistair – the former templar’s lips curled up in a smile that looked positively lascivious, and I wondered what he was dreaming now. He was almost painfully good looking, and I wanted him to look at me with that smile. I forced myself to turn away; I was going to get myself in trouble if I continued staring.

 I was still there, still humming, a couple of hours later when the sun started to rise and Leliana crawled out of our tent. We crept off to the side a bit and she asked me what I was humming. I realised it was Billy Joel's Lullaby, and ended up being coerced into singing it softly for Leliana. I could see her concentrating, trying to remember it as I sang:

          Goodnight my angel time to close your eyes,

          And save these questions for another day.

          I think I know what you've been asking me.

          I think you know what I've been trying to say.

 

          I promised I would never leave you,

          And you should always know,

          Wherever you may go, no matter where you are,

          I never will be far away.

 

          Goodnight my angel, now it's time to sleep,

          And still so many things I want to say.

          Remember all the songs you sang for me,

          When we went sailing on an emerald bay?

 

          And like a boat out on the ocean,

          I'm rocking you to sleep.

          The water's dark and deep. Inside this ancient heart

          You'll always be a part of me.

 

          Goodnight my angel now it's time to dream,

          And dream how wonderful your life will be.

          Someday your child may cry and if you sing this lullaby,

          Then in your heart there will always be a part of me.

 

          Someday we'll all be gone,

          But lullabies go on and on.

          They never die;

          That's how you and I will be.

 

I sang it a couple of times for her, and knew she'd remember it. So there, Billy Joel, now two different worlds know your music. I could tell Leliana wanted to pester me for more songs, but I convinced her I would sing for her later - people in camp were starting to wake up. She didn't understand, I knew, but there was no way I was going to sing in front of Alistair. Especially given that most of the songs I knew well enough to sing were love songs. Even if Leliana did call my voice 'pretty'. Pretty awful is more like it.

 We ate and got underway, and for the most part the day was peaceful. Once Aedan and Alistair sensed a group of darkspawn in the distance, but they must not have sensed us and went in a different direction. During the evening I worked on my meditation, and was able to keep my head mostly clear for close to an hour, which Alistair declared to be good progress. I slept better as well, and felt much improved the next morning. We walked for a couple more days like that, managing to avoid the occasional darkspawn group the Grey Wardens could feel in the distance, when we came upon the merchant that I recalled from the game, who gave us Shale's control rod after a short conversation. It wasn't where my memory of Sulcher's Pass should be on the map, but I guessed the game just picked a location at random. Unless I wanted to believe the 'butterfly effect', which meant that somehow my arrival in Ferelden caused his mule ran away somewhere different than BioWare expected...my brain is going to explode. Stop thinking, Sierra.

 We learned that Honnleath was only a couple of days away, a day and a half further along the imperial highway, then a left turn and a quick jaunt off the main road. Even Sten didn't complain too much about us going out of our way. We kept walking, while I told everyone about the darkspawn and the demon we would encounter in Honnleath. And warned them about Shale - much like her name, I recalled her being somewhat abrasive, though I'd only played that DLC once.

 Bodahn elected to stay near the highway, uncertain what the roads would be like leading to Honnleath. We all shouldered our packs, or at least tried to - Alistair took mine without a word, slung it alongside his own, and headed off. I couldn't decide whether to be grateful or angry. But in truth I knew I couldn't keep up well while carrying it so I let it slide.

 As we approached Honnleath, Aedan and Alistair starting sensing the darkspawn, and we all dropped our packs and readied ourselves to fight. They wanted me to stay back, but I figured with my luck they'd just jump me from behind. I ended up being tucked in the middle, behind Alistair and Sten, but in front of the mages and Aedan. Leliana was beside me, bow drawn. We came upon the first group, and the distraction we provided allowed a couple of villagers who'd been fighting for their lives to escape. The darkspawn turned on us instead, and we engaged them as we could.

 As before, the darkspawn seemed to ignore me entirely. They swarmed us, managing to separate us from each other, each person being attacked by at least one or two - except me. Which meant that I was able to dance around, stabbing and slashing at their unprotected backs with impunity. I reached around to slit the throat of one who was about to hack at Wynne with a large rusty sword, then dashed over to an archer who was taking aim at Leliana and stabbed it in the belly. Not one of them looked at me until after I struck, and I felt weirdly, wildly invincible.

 I was on my way back to the main group to stab at yet another hurlock when Aedan slashed across its abdomen. It flailed wildly, with a weapon that essentially looked like a crowbar someone had filed to a point, and managed to slice into my forearm, ripping apart the flimsy leather bracer I wore and across my flesh. So much for invincible. It felt like a hot poker as it entered, and I shrieked, dropping my dagger and backing away as Aedan finished the creature off. It was the last, and everyone did one last turn to ensure they were all dead when Wynne spotted me cradling my arm.

 She shouted, and everyone ran over, the sudden flurry of activity dizzying. Sten and Morrigan just stood, looking impassive, but Aedan grabbed me around the waist and lowered me to sit. Leliana fumbled out a flask that smelled vaguely like tequila, and as Wynne held out my arm, she poured some of the sticky substance onto it. Alistair used my dropped dagger to cut away my bracer while I hissed in pain as the alcohol burned through the laceration.

 "Son of a bitch, Leli, that hurts. Wynne? Can't you just heal it?"

"Not until we make sure no darkspawn blood got into it, dear. This should do it. One moment."

 I felt the magical aura rise as Wynne chanted something and passed her hand over the injury which had started pouring out blood again in objection to the alcohol. It was strange, really, as I'd never seen much magical healing up close - I felt my arm heat, and start to itch, and then the skin slowly came together, looking like a slow motion rewind of the injury itself. When she was done, Leliana poured water over my arm, and I saw a very slight, pale scar running across my forearm, the only memento I would have of the injury. I smiled around at everyone in gratitude, and promptly passed out.

 I woke only a few moments later, head cradled in Aedan's lap, while everyone else looted corpses or dragged them into a pile to be torched later.

 "There you are, Sierra. I thought you might disappear on us for a minute."

 "I sort of thought I had, actually." I coughed, and Aedan helped me sit then handed me a water skin. The water was blissfully cool and refreshing. "I fainted?"

 "It's quite common when healed with magic. Especially the first few times."

 "That's embarrassing. They don't mention that in the g...uh, performance."

 "Yeah it strikes me as the sort of detail that doesn't sit well with audiences. How are you feeling now?"

 "Fine, actually." My stomach growled loudly, and I blushed. "Hungry, apparently."

 Aedan laughed. "Also normal. The energy has to come from somewhere."

 "I wish it could have waited until we were somewhere that smelled better!"

 Aedan fished through a nearby pack and produced a hunk of dry bread and some cheese. I stuffed it into my mouth, completely ignoring my own objection to eating in the middle of the carnage. Alistair passed by lugging a hurlock corpse and gave me the most ridiculously pathetic look. I couldn't stand the puppy eyes, and finally offered him the last bite of my cheese. He smiled beatifically, then continued lugging the corpse.

 I looked away, muttering, and heard Aedan laugh at my pink cheeks.

 "It's not fair!"

 "What's not, dear sister?"

 "No one should look that gorgeous while covered in darkspawn blood."

 "I'll give you he's got a nice smile." He grinned at me and I giggled. If I'd needed any confirmation what gender Aedan preferred in a sexual partner, the once-over he gave Alistair from behind clinched it for me.

 I leaned in and whispered conspiratorially. "More than his smile is nice, believe me."

 "They covered that in the performance?"

 "Uh, well...sort of, actually, but that's not what I meant. I saw him. Bathing."

 "Ah, that explains your severe embarrassment that day at the stream."

 "Yeah, well, if you had accidentally wandered in on that, you'd have been a little embarrassed too."

 "Rippling muscles with water streaming off them?"

 "Mouth-wateringly so, yes." We both giggled some more, until we heard Morrigan shout.

 "If the two of you can giggle together, then obviously Sierra has recovered. Should we not continue?"

 I heaved myself up, now short one bracer, and recovered my daggers. We regrouped and headed to where I though Shale would be standing. She was much, much larger than I would have predicted based on the game. She was a head taller than Sten, and wider across the shoulders than Alistair in full plate. I couldn't tell if she had any enhancement crystals on her, which I supposed meant she didn't. Aedan stepped up to her, and holding the control rod, muttered the real activation phrase - "Dulen Harn". For a second, nothing happened, and then there was a groaning, trembling sound as rock ground against more rock and Shale slowly animated.

 I left Aedan to have the conversation with Shale - she needed to decide to accompany him on her own, and I wasn't likely to improve that. Once she decided to join us, we were all introduced. I suppressed my giggles at everyone's reactions to her calling them 'it'. I briefly wondered what my nickname would end up as - the ones I could think of for the other party members were not exactly complementary. Elder Mage, Swamp Witch, Drunken Dwarf, Painted Elf...this ought to be good.

 Finally convinced, we were able to have her accompany us into Wilhelm's basement to rescue the rest of the townsfolk and the poor little girl with the demon. I managed not to get myself stabbed accidentally, we freed everyone, and the demon bitch was dead. By the time we returned Amalia to her family, I was completely exhausted. We had decided not to camp within Honnleath in case more darkspawn showed up, but I wasn't certain I'd be able to make it very far. In the end, as we walked and I began to flag, Sten offered to throw me over his shoulder, which Aedan loudly refused, while Wynne suggested that I ride Shale, to which the golem vehemently objected. I sank to the ground while they argued, too exhausted to care, and Alistair walked over, politely asked Sten to hold our packs, and picked me up. I would have refused, if I'd had enough energy; as it was, I fell asleep cradled in his arms.

 He woke me, briefly, once we finally made camp, to encourage me to eat again, and I could barely even remember stuffing my mouth before falling asleep again where I sat. When I woke, it was morning, and I wasn't the only curled up body - I guessed no one wanted to bother putting up tents, and since it was a cloudless night, we all just slept huddled in blankets. I sat up, quietly so as not to disturb anyone else, and nearly jumped out of my skin as I turned the other way and found Alistair, on watch, sitting two feet away and staring at me.

 "Gah! Don't scare me like that."

 His face remained serious. "No, Sierra, you scared us yesterday. Don't. Do that. Again." Without another word, or giving me a chance to respond, he rose, silently, and walked away, leaving me with my mouth agape. What the hell?

 He started shouting, waking the rest of the group, and soon everyone was blearily downing a breakfast of dry bread and some sort of jerky. I'd discovered that if I didn't know what the jerky was made from, I didn't feel like throwing up. My group had responded positively to my 'don't ask, don't tell' policy, though I don't think any of them had the slightest clue why. I'm a wussy modern city girl. So sue me. I felt back to normal after having a good rest, although I was mortified at having been carried by Alistair. He claimed I was light, so it wasn't a problem, and I knew he was incredibly strong, but...I had no other word for it than 'mortified'.

 We made good time and reached Bodahn mid-morning, then turned north along the Imperial highway. Assuming the map to be close to accurate, we had another week of travel to reach the turn-off to Haven. Alistair stored my pack for me on Bodahn's wagon, reminding me yet again how embarrassed I was to be so...feeble.

 Which is exactly the nickname that Shale had taken to using for me - the 'feeble human'. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, but it didn't endear her to me any. Although the endless tirades about pigeons were somewhat amusing, at least at first, and I knew most of what she said was bluster, she was annoying. I liked Morrigan more, which was both frightening and funny. Shale and Sten seemed to get along famously, though, which didn't surprise me in the least. So far, no one had told Shale about my foreknowledge thing, and I knew it would have to come eventually, but I didn't look forward to prolonged private conversations with her.

 As it was, the subject was introduced the hard way - I was walking along, tired but managing, and became suddenly dizzy. She was staring right at me as I disappeared.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Three: Murphy’s Law

 I woke up back in the ICU, sandwiched between beds of patients with every tube imaginable in them. When I did my personal inventory this time, I found a few more tubes than I normally had to contend with. I had an IV, but it exited from just below my collarbone, instead of from a hand or arm as usual. I couldn't see it, but there were a lot more attachments on it too. I sat up carefully and noticed a catheter - the bag was empty - and another IV in my opposite hand. I also had a tube going up my nose, which constantly made me feel like I needed a Kleenex, and seemed also to be making my throat tickle. As I looked around I realised I had a gaggle of monitors, most of which were portable on individual wheeled stands, and very few of which I could comprehend. I was almost afraid to know what had been going on with my body while I was away.

 A nurse bustling by gave a high pitched squeak when she saw me sitting upright, pulling angrily on the tube in my nose. She pushed my hands away, but it was too late - the stupid thing was out, and after a moment of coughing and gagging I felt much better. She confirmed I had been unconscious again for a couple of weeks, but was deliberately vague on any other details. She was definitely antsy, and finally ran off to get the doctor without telling me anything.

 I was contemplating trying to change into my own clothes again, wondering what to do with the tube near my collar bone, when the doctor arrived. He looked ten years older than he had the last time I'd seen him. His smile when he saw me was entirely fake, and it occurred to me that he might be feeling responsible for whatever strangeness my body had been going through the past two weeks.

 He confirmed for me that I'd been out for two weeks, which seemed about right although I'd forgotten to keep track exactly in Ferelden. Apparently I'd been causing some problems, and had managed to destroy a variety of hospital equipment twice since the last time I'd been awake. He didn't phrase it like that, citing electrical surges and power outages, but it had now happened three times, in various parts of the hospital, always to equipment near me. Unfortunately, I'd never been hooked up to an EEG monitor when it happened - I wondered what the pattern would have looked like. The hospital, unable to figure out what was happening, had put me in an isolation ward, where I stayed until the day before.

 I ended up back in the ICU because, out of the blue, the day before I woke up, blood had started fountaining randomly out of my arm. Apparently my blood pressure had dropped, and I lost more than a litre of blood onto the floor, but when they finally got to examining me, could find no source for the bleeding. Worried that it would happen again, they put me back in the ICU with all the monitors and the new IV - apparently called a 'central line'. The line could allow someone to monitor my blood pressure at the same time as giving medications or fluid or whatever, and could stay in place for a long time, instead of needing to be changed every few days like the one in my hand.

 The tube in my nose was apparently a source of contention. Some other doctor who'd been called in to help out when I started bleeding everywhere found out that I'd been in a 'coma' for two weeks without being fed and had a fit, forcing the issue and getting hospital administration involved, until finally the tube was inserted to provide me with food until I woke. My doctor felt it was unnecessary, because like before, I had lost only a tiny amount of weight, hadn't needed to pee, and wasn't showing any sign of malnourishment. Even after all the bleeding, the lab could find nothing abnormal in my blood. I wondered why I was still hungry in Ferelden while I was being fed at home. Maybe healing means I needed more food than usual?

 I showed him the new scar on my forearm, explaining that I had been injured in my dream. I didn't tell him about the templar thing, but implied that I was aware the monitor outages were probably my fault, claiming a long-standing "anti-technology" issue that broke computers and watches all the time. Knowing I might not have long before blacking out again, we decided quickly for me to do the paperwork refusing tube feeds and other procedures unless my lab work said that I was becoming malnourished, or otherwise ill. I asked about removing the central line, but he convinced me to leave it, and just detach all the tubes feeding into it, so that I wouldn't need another if the problem happened again. I also signed paperwork refusing a catheter. Worst case scenario, they'd have to deal with me in adult diapers, but I was getting sick of tubes going into and coming out of my bladder. I told him I thought he should keep me out of the ICU unless I was actually dying. He agreed, though wasn't sure how enforceable that would be if I started spewing blood everywhere again.

 Once that was done, I begged leave to take a shower, and he agreed to ask the nurses to arrange that once I'd been transferred to a different room, yet again. He encouraged me to see the lawyer as soon as possible assuming I stayed awake long enough, and was getting ready to leave as the world swam and I collapsed down onto the bed.

 "No! Not dressed like this!" My last view was of my nearly naked body, wearing only a tiny hospital gown, and the kind doctor's face, frowning in consternation.

 ********

 I woke up in Thedas, somewhere. I was barefoot, and wearing a skimpy, short hospital gown. My ass was hanging out in the breeze. Wonderful. It occurred to me, for possibly the first time, that there was no guarantee I'd be somewhere useful. I'd been lucky so far, always ending up close to where I wanted to be, but I could be anywhere, really. In a hospital gown. Good God. I was surrounded by fields of mostly thick grasses, no signs of habitation anywhere. I couldn't decide if that made me more or less likely to be raped until I found some clothes and figured out where I was.

 I tied the gown at the back as best as I was able, then tried to decide what to do. There were some larger trees a few hundred yards away, and I decided to head towards them - maybe I could find myself a stick as a weapon, and at least find some cover so I'd be less likely to be discovered by anyone. I picked my way across the field, very conscious of my lack of shoes. I couldn't afford a foot injury, so being careful meant it took me a lot longer to reach the trees. It was a small stand of trees, not a forest, but I found a decent branch that I thought would work as a walking stick and a basic staff if necessary. Still not seeing anything else useful, my next thought was to climb a tree and see if I could figure out where I was from a higher elevation. One of the trees near me was a huge, old, gnarled thing, and was tall enough to be useful. It had several smaller trees leaning against it or standing near it, which gave me additional hand and footholds.

 At home, I'd always been overweight, no matter how hard I tried, but despite that I was quite adept at tree climbing as a child. In this body, it was a simple matter to haul myself up into the lower branches and scramble up the massive trunk. When I was maybe twenty feet up, I cleared the tops of most of the other trees around, and was able to get a bit of a look - more fields, more trees. I went a little higher, and suddenly realised that in the distance, there was a rather regular break in the monotony that continued as far as I could see in both directions. A roadway? The closest point to me was maybe a couple of kilometres, far enough to be annoying but near enough to walk. Lacking any other noticeable landmarks, I looked down to choose trees to help me navigate once I hit the ground.

 Unfortunately, while climbing the tree enabled me to look around, apparently it had also highlighted me as well. While searching for ways to know which direction to head, I noticed movement off towards the road. Over a few moments it came closer until it became obvious that it was a group of people, headed in my direction. They weren't anyone I knew, and they were coming fast. I debated climbing down to retrieve my stick, but decided that staying in the tree gave me better protection in case those approaching didn't have my best interests at heart.

 My hopes for a dashing rescue came crashing down as I got a close up view of those that had surrounded the base of the tree. There were perhaps ten of them, all men, most looking decidedly unsavoury. They were all armoured, though their gear appeared to be piecemeal, none of it matching. They approached the base of the tree I clung to.

 "What have we here, boys? Looks like we treed ourselves some entertainment for later. A gift, if you will, and look - we barely even need to unwrap it!" The group of them laughed, and I sighed. Nice going, Sierra, jinx yourself by wondering about being raped.

 "Come on down, missy! We won't hurt you none. We was just wanting to get to know you a little!" There was a general chorus of agreement, mixed in with a variety of catcalls. Apparently chauvinist pigs say the same things in any world. I wondered how long I had before one or more tried coming up after me.

 "I think I'll just stay up here, if it's all the same to you." There were some jeers, and I could see the atmosphere of the men below get nastier. They pulled into a circle, whispering amongst themselves, clearly trying to come up with a plan.

 I started looking up, evaluating the branches above my head. There were some...an idea started to form. I climbed a little ways down, holding on above myself, which put me into a fairly provocative pose. I ignored the flush of embarrassment, and lifted one leg, dropping it back down onto the branch I stood on. From below, I heard some more catcalls, as one or two of the men noticed and somehow seemed to think I was giving them a show. I was fine with that interpretation as long as it kept them down there a while longer. I stomped down again, heard a soft crack, and felt my weight shift subtly. I used my arms and swung up onto the next highest branch, giving the rabble below a glimpse of forbidden territory. I repeated the same 'dance', until that branch also started to crack. Again and again I did the same thing, climbing higher with each step, until I was a good fifteen feet higher than where I'd started. The show was losing its appeal due to repetition, but as yet none of them had caught on to my true intent.

 Finally dissatisfied, and having no luck convincing me to come down, the group elected one of their members to try to come up. He was a balding, ugly, mean looking man, but he appeared to be in good shape and I didn't think he'd have any more trouble climbing than I did. Fortunately for me, he looked a great deal taller and generally larger than I was, and I just had to hope I'd done enough. I shimmied a little further up the tree, now clinging to the trunk and distributing my weight across multiple smaller branches. I watched Baldy's progress with trepidation as he reached the lowest branches that I had 'danced' on.

 He reached up to grab the branch, and it broke off in his hand, like I'd hoped. He swore, swinging wildly, and almost fell. Finally righting himself, he inched around the tree to try again. The next branch held as he grabbed it, but when he tried to shift his entire weight onto it, it also released, breaking off right at the join to the trunk. He became more cautious after his second near-miss, and found each branch he could reach similarly weakened. I actually grinned in relief that my plan had worked, and he caught the expression. He started swearing at me, then called down to his friends.

 "This bitch weakened the branches! I can't climb any further." He tried a couple more times to scale the trunk directly, but had no luck. Finally he climbed back down to regroup. I stayed put, although I did break off one nearby long branch, which wasn't strong enough to hold me, but I hoped would work as a club if a needed it. I waited.

 They elected another guy to try to climb, and I saw that he had some sort of rope over his shoulder as he came. I didn't think he'd be capable of throwing the rope over a reliable branch, but readied my makeshift club just in case. As he slowly climbed, I looked out over the horizon again, hoping for something I could use, someone who might aid me. That was when I noticed a small bird, circling high overhead. It seemed like too much to ask, but I had to try.

 "Morrigan!" I screamed as loud as I could managed, startling the men below. "Morrigan, is that you? Help!" I was rewarded by seeing the distant creature circle lower towards me. I cried out in relief as a familiar black bird finally landed in a tree nearby. "Hey, any way you could help? I'm sort of stuck up here now that I've broken the branches. I don't suppose you have a bigger form that flies, like Flemeth? Carry me out of here?" The bird chattered, and tilted its head curiously. "I'll take that as a no. Where are the others? Could you get them?" The bird made another noise and took off.

 My conversation was noted by the men below, but if anything they seemed to find it funny. Personally, understanding Ferelden even as poorly as I did, I would have been wary of someone talking to an unnaturally large bird. I'd guess no one ever accused these guys of being the sharpest knives in the drawer. I returned my attention to the man who had finally reached the bare portion of the tree, where the branches had broken. My assumption that he would attempt to use the rope to throw over a branch was apparently misplaced, and instead he passed it around the trunk of the tree, grasping both ends while pushing against the tree with his booted feet. Crap, he's seen Mulan? Damn you Disney!

 He was able to slowly creep up the bare tree trunk, having to pause every couple of steps to jerk the rope up. I prayed for a while that the rope would fray or break, but it didn't seem likely. His progress was very, very slow, but there was no mistaking that it was progress. I realised that I was going to have to resort to actively trying to knock the guy out of the tree, a fall that would likely kill him if I was successful. The thought of actually killing a person made me queasy - it was one thing to kill darkspawn and demons and abominations, entirely another to murder a human. I tried convincing myself that self-defense wasn't murder, but I didn't totally believe myself. Kill or be killed was not the culture I was raised in!

 I decided to try to deter him instead. I carefully slid down a couple of branches, and then using my club, reached down further to bonk him on the head, firmly but not viciously.

 "I don't want to hurt you, but I will if you make me. I have friends on the way who won't take kindly to this, and they have no such qualms about killing would-be rapists. Why don't you just climb back down, take your friends, and go?"

 "Stupid bitch. If you had friends coming, we'd know about it. There's nobody around for miles. You might as well give it up - we will have our fun, one way or t'other, and if you stop fighting, you'll probably survive."

 Pissed off, and worried by his certainty that no one was near, I bashed him with my stick again. Unfortunately for him, his face was tilted up to look at me, and so I got him square in the nose. He swore again as blood poured down his face, and I heard more angry grumbles from below. I wasn't sure I could stomach purposefully hitting him in the face anymore, so I switched to attacking his hands, hoping if I harried him enough he'd give up. I reached down, swatting at his hands, the rough broken end of the stick scratching and cutting his exposed skin, and he swore some more.

 "What, did you really expect me to just give up? You're not that smooth a talker, friend."

 I continued to jab at his hands, and at one point managed to snag the rope, dropping him a sudden couple of feet before he regained his grip. Stubbornly trying again, he climbed back into reach. Seeing that the superficial injuries I was able to inflict on his hands weren't enough, I switched back to attacking his head. He was smarter this time and didn't look up, but I got a good couple of smacks in that must have left him reeling.

 Just then I heard shouting, and looked down to see the men below pointing. They all started grabbing for weapons, when finally I saw movement through the copse of trees. I was blinded by sunlight glinting off a shield, heard a familiar battle cry, and suddenly Alistair was charging at the group of men. Aedan might have tried to talk them down, but Alistair got there first. He rammed into the front line, shield first, literally bashing a couple of men across the clearing to crumple on the ground. They didn't get up. The rest of my friends entered the fray, and it took mere seconds before all of my would-be attackers threw down their weapons begging for mercy.

 The man halfway up the tree watched in dismay at this turn of events, but was distracted suddenly by a large, black bird diving at his face. With his hands occupied, Morrigan got in a couple of good pecks as he screamed. Losing his ability to reason entirely, he finally let go of the rope to protect his face. I shrieked as he fell, looking away before he hit the ground. The squishy sounding thud as he landed was something I thought would stay with me for a long time. Trying not to cry, I clung to the tree and scrunched my eyes shut. Morrigan landed nearby, chirping at me curiously.

 "Sierra? Are you okay?" Aedan called up from below.

 "Uh, yeah. I suppose I am. I think I'm probably stuck up here, though."

 Aedan’s voice sounded vaguely amused. "Andraste's Ass, girl, what are you wearing? And why in the Maker's name are you in a tree?"

 I sighed. "Look. If you could all just turn away, and perhaps Morrigan could bring me up a length of rope? I'll climb down and tell you everything."

 Looking down, I saw most of my friends looking up at me with concern, with the exception of Alistair who had his back to me. His neck was purple, and I guessed his face would be too; I wondered how much he’d seen before he looked away, and then I was blushing more too.

 "Uh...the rope is back in the cart. Hang on, let's see if these louts have got any they'd like to donate as a sign of good faith."

 There was some cursing, and Alistair punched someone, but shortly another nice long bit of rope was found. Aedan shrugged off his cloak to leave on the ground at the foot of the tree, and then they herded the captives away from the tree and across the clearing, forcing them to look away at the point of a blade. Satisfied that I wasn't going to be spied upon, I asked Morrigan politely to bring me up the rope, and she flew down, grabbed one end in her claws, and dropped it into my waiting hand. I quickly tied it around myself, improvising a rough harness, then looped it over a couple of sturdy branches. Grabbing the other end, I slowly belayed myself down the bare section of tree trunk, then climbed down the rest of the way once I reached branches again.

 Resolutely avoiding looking at the broken body that had fallen from the tree, I wrapped Aedan's cloak around myself and then called to the others. Morrigan changed shape, and stood beside me; I pulled her into a fierce hug. Thanking her profusely, I blinked away the tears that threatened to spill. Aedan, Alistair, Wynne, and Leliana walked up, leaving Sten guarding the captives. I wanted to hug each of them, but was mortified at my state of undress and so I refrained.

 Aedan quirked an eyebrow at me, glancing at where his cloak covered my near-nakedness.

 "Yeah, yeah. I will explain. At home...well, I've told you they're keeping my body in a building where the doc...healers can look after it? This is what they make people wear in those places, so that the clothing isn't in the way if they need to heal something, and so they don't ruin anyone's clothes by getting blood or whatever on them."

 "So why have you never worn it here before?"

 "Well, I bring over whatever I'm wearing when I pass out. Usually I have time to get changed into clothes, but I was gone such a short time this time that I didn't." I left out about the problems they were having with me randomly bleeding and such. They already thought I was feeble, I didn't want to enhance that opinion.

 "That still doesn't explain what you were doing in that tree."

 "Well, I popped in way over there," I pointed in the direction I'd come, "and I had no idea where in Thedas I was. I hoped I'd be near you all but couldn't be sure, and didn't know which way to go. So I climbed the tree to try to get a look around, and that's when they found me. And then, with a bunch of would-be rapists on the ground, I figured I was safer up there. I can't tell you how glad I am that Morrigan found me though! Even if I'd been able to keep them away, I wouldn't have been able to get out of that tree."

 "Clever trick, by the way, destroying the branches."

 "I decided stranded but alive was better than raped and murdered on the ground. Now...where are my clothes?"

 "On the cart. Back on the road. We will have to walk there, sorry. When Morrigan came to get us, we didn't exactly think we'd find you naked!"

 "Oh, dammit, now I don't have any boots either."

 Aedan took my hand and let me over to the captives. "Shoes off, all of you."

 He grinned at me and I laughed, having some idea what he was about. Nine men stripped their footwear off. They were all passed over to me, and I picked through, finding one sturdy pair of boots close enough to my size for now. Aedan gathered the rest of the boots into a pile, and then turned to Morrigan. "If you would, my lady?"

 The fireball she threw could have lit the night sky, had it been dark out. Which was the point - it scared the pants off the nine captives standing there.

 "We don't have time to deal with you, nor the inclination. My only recourse to you trying to rape Lady Sierra would be to execute you, but the lady has a soft heart and has chosen to spare you. You all owe her your lives. Instead, you will be left without weapons or shoes, to find your own way back home. And if I ever hear of you all resuming banditry or trying to rape someone else, next time I'll ask my friend here to incinerate you with the fireball instead of your boots. Is that clear?"

 He had them all lie face down in the dirt, telling them to count to a hundred, slowly, before standing up. He made sure they saw Morrigan change shape again so they knew they could be watched, and then we all walked away. I carried the boots, not wanting to put my feet in them without socks, and was again carefully picking my way across the fields. Alistair put up with that for all of ten minutes before taking off his own cloak, wrapping it around me like a blanket, and scooping me up again. I shrieked.

 "Put me down!"

 "And let you hurt your feet? No."

 "I'm quite capable of walking barefoot, thanks."

 "If we feel like waiting all day, I'm sure you are."

 "Alistair, so help me, put me down right now!"

 "Would you rather I let Sten carry you over his shoulder? Because I will, Sierra. Don't tempt me."

 "Shut up. Bastard."

 Aedan piped up. "At least you finally used the word correctly."

 I sulked, completely aggravated. If I'd had something to throw, I would have thrown it at Aedan. Instead, I settled down, refusing to look at either of the men, secretly enjoying feeling safe in Alistair's arms. Maybe being feeble has an upside, because it's the closest I'm going to come to...inappropriate, Sierra!

 We made it back to the road, Alistair carrying me for an hour or so. He seemed unbothered by it, not even rubbing his arms as he put me down, and his pace had increased, if anything, while carrying me. Ridiculous. I swear he's made of harder stone than Shale.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Four: My Favourite Assassin

 Upon reaching Bodahn, I quickly changed into my armour, and once I put on socks, slipped my feet into the boots we had ...liberated. Then, as usual, we walked. Everyone had apparently explained to Shale who I was, and she seemed completely disinterested. She wasn't much for fast running, so she'd stayed with Bodahn when the rest came to my rescue. She barely acknowledged me once we'd returned, and it pissed me off – I thought she’d be at least curious, and I seemed to be taking it personally for some reason. Resolving to try to befriend her one more time, I decided to walk with her, whether she wished it or not, and tell her about Caridin.

 I stepped in beside her, and we walked quietly for a few minutes. I tried to figure out what to say, but was having trouble. I decided to just jump in.

 "Shale?"

 "Does the feeble human want something from me? Perhaps it wishes a ride?"

 "I would never! That wasn't my idea. I would never expect you to give me a ride, Shale."

 "It does not seem to object when the whiny Grey Warden gives it a ride." I had to think about that for a moment, and choked out an embarrassed laugh at the unintended dirty mental image she conjured.

 "Al...Alistair? That's, uh...that wasn't my idea either. He offered. It's different if someone offers."

"So you would not ask? But you would accept if I offered?"

 "Only if there was a reason. Like when we needed to keep moving and I wasn't able. Or when I had no shoes."

 "I see. Perhaps it should try to be less feeble, if it prefers not to be carried?"

 "I'm trying, believe me. I just was never trained like all of them were. Before I came here the most exercise I ever got was running away and hiding from bullies. And foster-parents. And even that was years ago. I'm getting better - when I first came and had to walk, I was exhausted after a few miles."

 "Does it expect a medal for that?"

 "...No. Um, can I talk to you about something else?"

 "Must it?"

 "Okay, listen. You're trying to be unpleasant, and I'm trying not to care. I'm just going to come out and tell you something anyway, and then I won't bother you anymore. I just thought you might want to know where you came from. I know you don't remember much before being in Honnleath."

 "It claims to know my past?"

 "Not all of it, no. But pieces. You don't even know how golems are made. Do you want to?"

 "I am listening."

 "Golems were made by the dwarf Paragon named Caridin.   Several hundred years ago, in the Deep Roads, in a place called Bownammar. They...were made from dwarves. Volunteers, at first, and then conscripts, who Caridin was able to turn into golems using the Anvil of the Void. You were one of the volunteers."

 Shale scoffed. "It must have been misinformed."

 "No, Shale. I've seen it. Been there when you spoke to Caridin. Seen your name on the monument. You were once a dwarf. A woman. Shayle, of House Cadash."

 "If it is going to persist in these sick fantasies, it should at least try to come up with something believable. I suppose it believes that if it knows all these facts, it becomes more important? Perhaps it thinks this will compensate for its feebleness?"

 "You know what? Fine. Just fine. I suppose it was inevitable that someone didn't believe me. But you know what? I didn't ask to be here. I don't want to be important. I'm trying to make the best out of a ridiculous situation, and if you won't do the same, then sod off."

 I was vaguely proud of myself for using Fereldan curse words, and at the same time completely furious with Shale. I supposed I should have expected that I wouldn't get immediate acceptance from everyone, but Shale was never the one I had worried about, given the knowledge I could provide her with. It never occurred to me that she’d just assume I was making it up. I decided to ignore her from then on, and so I skipped ahead, walking next to Leliana for the rest of the day. I taught her some songs as we walked, love songs from my teenage years, mostly. I was still self-conscious about my voice, but she was never anything but encouraging, and finally convinced me. She was enchanted by Vonda Shepard's simple ballad, 'I Know Him By Heart'. I listened to her sing it sweetly over the campfire later, wishing that someday I could see a duet with her and Vonda. That would be awesome. I couldn't help blushing, remembering listening to that song and thinking about Alistair while playing the game.

 I resumed my templar practice with Alistair that night. I was getting better at focusing faster, and so he started trying to distract me. He would throw small rocks, make loud noises, or bump me. The first few times he did it I was completely startled, but came to expect it and managed to keep my concentration better. I went to my bedroll, in the tent I shared with Leliana, self-satisfied. And exhausted, not that I'd admit that out loud - at least where Shale could hear me.

 We walked for two more days uneventfully while I taught Leliana more Vonda Shepard songs, finally figuring that we were roughly a week from Haven - four more days on the highway, then three more, assuming the roads were okay. On the third day after my dramatic re-entry, we finally found the ambush I'd been waiting for. As we wandered along the road, a hysterical woman ran up from a side path begging for aid, and then ran off again. We all exchanged glances, and I nodded. Alistair, Shale, and Sten continued walking forward on the road, weapons at the ready. Aedan and Leliana faded into the undergrowth and disappeared, and Morrigan shifted into spider form to approach through the woods as well. Wynne and I followed, a few dozen steps behind our warriors, hoping that not seeing Aedan immediately would delay the tree getting dropped onto our escape route.

 As predicted, the warriors triggered the fight, but what the ambushers did not count on was Leliana putting an arrow into the neck of the mage, and Aedan sneaking up on a couple of the crossbowmen and putting them down before they even got off a shot. Morrigan got one of the other crossbowmen, Alistair bashed Zevran in the face with his shield, and Shale and Sten took out the other fighters around Zevran. Before I could even blink, the elf was unconscious, his 'friends' dead, and the road remained unblocked. God I love foresight.

 Aedan quickly tied Zevran up, and everyone else looted corpses. I stayed well back from any blood or gore, concentrating on not throwing up. The battle hadn’t been as loud as I expected, but the scent of blood was making me nauseous, my heart was pounding, and my knees felt like they might give out. I wondered if I would ever get over my aversion to violence against humans. I sort-of hoped not. Seeing me looking pale, Aedan herded me away from the corpses and then had Zevran dragged back over to the road while we all waited for him to wake.

 I stared at the elf curiously. Like Alistair, he was far better looking in person than in the game, even with a swelling cheek and what looked to be the start of an impressive black eye. In the game I'd tried the romance options with Zevran, and knew he was sweet at heart once you got under all of the bluster, but really there was no contest for me. Given the choice between the often crude Antivan elf and the sweet, self-deprecating templar, the templar won every time. Besides, my type had always been tall men. I was guessing, but by appearances, Zevran and I were the same height. I might even be taller than him. I kept forgetting how little elves were in this universe! I did hope Zevran and I could be friends, however. He was hilarious.

 He finally woke up. I stayed out of the conversation as he defended, rather calmly, why he felt Aedan shouldn't execute him on the spot. I nearly laughed out loud when he offered his services for massage and bed-warming. I had seriously thought the game-makers must have been exaggerating. At the end of the conversation, Aedan was convinced, I could tell, but Alistair definitely was not. He shot me a piercing look, which I interpreted to mean 'are you serious?' I nodded firmly, and he finally shrugged and spoke.

 "You are lucky, elf. I myself am not so forgiving, but our lady has decreed that you shall live. I strongly encourage you to thank the Maker that she is here, otherwise you would be little more than a stain on this lovely green grass."

 Aedan glanced at me again to see me hiding my grin at Alistair’s intimidation attempt before offering Zevran the four daggers he'd confiscated. It was useless anyway; knowing Zev, he had six more hidden somewhere Aedan didn't find them. Wynne offered to heal his face, which he accepted with grace, and only a mild comment on her kindness. I half-expected him to start spewing prose about her magical bosom on the spot.

 Aedan offered him a hand to help him up, and just like that we had an assassin on our side. Go team! I wondered if Alistair would ever believe that he was actually a good guy. Watching him glower, I doubted it. Everyone else seemed only slightly uneasy, except for Leliana who, as always, approved of giving someone a second chance. She really was that sweet. I couldn't help but be impressed. When I played the game, I made the decisions about things like that pragmatically - more help was always better, and I doubted BioWare would offer me a companion who would murder me in my sleep. In real life the stakes were a little different, I had to admit. I thanked whoever - God, the Maker - had given me my unusual foresight. Again.

 With my assurances, everyone seemed to accept Zevran’s change of allegiance reasonably well, with the obvious exception of Alistair. The templar watched the assassin uneasily, muttering about not allowing him near the food, and how he wasn’t going to be sitting watch alone, ever. It didn’t surprise me, but it was kind of amusing.

 We followed the road back to the wagon, and continued on towards Haven. I spent my time listening with amusement as Shale aggravated 'the elder mage', 'the sister', and 'the whiny Warden' in turn, thankful it wasn't just me she rubbed the wrong way. She and Sten still got along famously. I think she almost had him convinced we should be actively slaying every bird we came across. I kept hoping Morrigan would poop on her.

 Aedan spent most of the day with Zevran, explaining where we were going and what our mission was. I could see Zev's surprise that Aedan would tell him so much, and wondered if I should interfere before he decided not to respect our fearless leader. Instead I just wandered closer, hoping my presence would trigger a discussion about why Aedan trusted him. I was apprehensive but pleased when Zevran drew me into their conversation.

 "So, my Lady, I have yet to thank you for the gift of my life." Zevran bowed slightly, looking up at me with his eyebrows raised, in what I assume he thought of as an attractive pose. I decided to jump right in.

 "Given why you chose to bid for this contract, Zev, I am surprised that you would thank me for something you were trying to throw away." His eyebrows rose higher, and I had to fight to keep a straight face. I couldn't look at Aedan or I knew I'd laugh.

 "I...you have me at a disadvantage, my lady. I don't know of what you speak."

 "Oh, Zevran, I know all your secrets, ‘amico mio’. Do not play coy with me. You bid on a contract that no other would touch, because you wished to die. Do you want me to tell everyone why? About your last contract with the Crows?"

 Zevran stared at me, mouth open, his face paler than I would have believed possible. Apparently in Ferelden all natural blonds aren't pasty. I still don't understand that. Maybe it's an elf thing? I allowed myself a smirk, which appeared to unnerve him further.

 "I would rather you didn't, my lady." The humble tone was so odd for the Antivan. "I suppose, in answer to your question, all I can say is that when my death was upon me, I discovered that perhaps I enjoy my life more than I might have expected."

 I nodded. "Good. Then all you need to do is keep in mind that your continued enjoyment is dependent on keeping these people," I gestured to our little group, "alive. Because we both know that this group is the only one who can keep you out of the Crows' hands. As you will discover when we end up in Denerim and run into your friend Taliesen. ‘Capiche’?"

 I didn't wait for his reply before stalking off to talk to Leliana. I knew Aedan would be able to capitalise on what I'd started, and keep Zevran just off balance enough to gain the proper respect required. Aedan followed me for a moment, leaning in to whisper before returning to Zev's side.

 "You're sleeping in my tent from now on, sister dear." I laughed and agreed.

 On joining Leliana, she started the conversation.

 "So...Zevran."

 "Hey Leli. Yes, Zevran. Ask away, I know you're dying to."

 "He's rather...different." I was expecting a question on my intentions with him, like she'd asked me about Duncan and Aedan.

 "Yep. But good with his hands." I snickered at her shocked expression, and pulled out my own dagger to demonstrate. "With knives, Leli. You're so easy!" I howled, and her laughter pealed out too.

 "The reason I wanted to talk to you, though was...would you mind, terribly much, sharing a tent with Wynne for a while?"

 "You don't wish to share with me anymore?" I could see a pout forming. I knew her too well to believe that for a minute.

 "Nice try, drama queen. It's got nothing to do with that. It's just that we don't have an extra tent for Zevran. And I really don't think anyone should be sharing with him, shameless flirt that he is. But if you shared with Wynne, I could bunk with Aedan, and Wynne's tent could become Zevran's. Just until we can buy another tent."

 I could see her considering other arrangements and discarding them. I knew in this case I was right. I wasn't a business consultant for nothing - I could see the pairings, and this was the only one that would work, even without Aedan's demand. Finally she nodded. "I'll go talk to Wynne."

 At camp that night, Alistair took over setting up the tents, and I asked Aedan if he would spend a bit of time sparring with me before dinner. He agreed, and we both grabbed ourselves a couple of stout sticks to use as daggers. We circled each other, and I was able to keep away from his initial attacks, but it was obvious my counters were clumsy. I reminded myself to try to loosen up, grateful that at least I didn't need to dedicate as much of my attention to the ground beneath my feet as I used to. I managed to surprise him with a throw once, but he changed his tactics and I could never get a grip on him after that.

 Several of our companions stepped up, watching, and between the laughing and the catcalls, tried to offer me advice as Aedan handed me my ass, repetitively. I chuckled even as I lost the rounds, over and over.

 "Yes, Leli. I am trying to move faster, shouting that won't actually make it more likely to happen. Thank you Alistair, I know I should have ducked. You all are not actually helping, you know that right?" By the time supper was ready, I was panting, sweaty, and thoroughly humiliated. No matter how much I learned about fighting, it wasn't enough. I ate, rushed off to clean up in the little stream nearby, and then joined Alistair for my usual templar training. This time he surprised me - he allowed me to get my focus, but instead of trying to distract me himself, he had obviously arranged for others to do it. Shale stamped the ground, an earthquake rattling under me. Sten let out an obnoxiously loud battle roar in Qunari. Leliana insisted on braiding my hair. I found myself wondering who would be bothering me next, rather than concentrating, and ended up humiliated yet again.

 Finally admitting defeat, I raised my hands. "I cry uncle."

 Alistair looked at me, puzzled. "Uncle?"

 I laughed. "A saying from home. If you were losing a game, or say got pinned while wrestling, the other person would make you 'cry uncle' before accepting your surrender."

 "Is that like 'not the face'?" I chortled, never expecting to hear those words from Alistair's lips.

 "Not exactly. But, uh, yeah. I surrender. I'm far too useless this evening for any more training. Can we try again tomorrow?"

 "Of course." His smile turned into a frown mixed with a glower, and I suddenly knew who had approached me from behind while we talked. I tried to give him a reassuring smile, and was rewarded with a skeptical snort. Zevran hovered, so I gave Alistair a 'be nice' look, and turned my attention to the assassin standing beside me.

 "May we talk?" I nodded at Alistair, who grimaced again and slowly walked away.

 "What can I do for you, Zevran?"

 "Our Grey Warden has explained to me how you know so much about me. This...performance? ...of yours. I find myself intrigued. He tells me that you knew about the ambush I set up. And it would seem you know some things about me, as well."

 I nodded. "In the performance...eventually, you befriended Aedan and told him the truth."

 Zevran scoffed. "I do not have friends."

 I smiled softly. "Never? What about Taliesen? Rinna? You cannot claim never to have cared about anyone. Your life has been terrible, Zev, and not even those few you've cared about have been really good friends, but...you are capable of respect. Trust. Love, even. I know it, even if you don't. You wear sex and assassination as a mask, trying to protect what's inside. It won't be easy for you to believe, on day one, but you will come to care for these people, and they for you. And you will learn who you really are, not who the Crows forced you to be."

 Zevran stared at me for a few minutes, looking truly disconcerted. That was an expression I'm sure no one else had ever seen on that handsome face. In the game, he was unruffle-able. He was all calm pragmatism and mercenary decision-making.   Messing with him was going to be kind of fun, I decided, although I thought I might wait until he was a little bit more comfortable. I was fairly certain his sex jokes weren't going to exasperate me the way they did everyone else - they were actually pretty tame in my world, even more so after being raised in foster care. I wondered how he would take to someone who could give as well as she got.

 I took pity on him, finally. "It's okay, Zev. You don't have to believe me right now. Just carry on and let things happen as they will. But I know a little bit about being raised without the ability to trust. If you need someone to talk to, I'm here." I stood up, patted him on the shoulder, and walked away to find Aedan's tent. I pointed to Wynne's old one, letting Zevran know that he could sleep there, and then found my goal. I tried to ignore the looks I got from Wynne, Alistair, and Zevran as I crawled in to finally go to sleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Five: Deals and Dragons

 That became the new pattern for us for a couple of days. Walk until almost supper, spar with Aedan – badly – and then work on meditation with Alistair. I'd gotten to the point where, when necessary, I could ignore the movements, shouts, pokes, and tickles of those around me, and maintain my focus regardless. One evening, still sitting with my eyes closed, but having decided I was done for the night, I suddenly could feel eyes on me. I waited, listening and feeling, trying to determine if it was hostile or not. Near me I could hear only Alistair's soft breathing as he too meditated; further away I could hear talking and laughing, and was able to account for the whereabouts of Wynne, Leliana, Sten, Shale, Aedan, Prince, and Morrigan. Zevran then. I tensed, suddenly vaguely worried that while the assassin would develop respect and friendship with the rest of the group, that he saw me as a threat. I heard the softest whisper of leather sliding against leather behind me, and realised he was closer than I thought.

 I broke the silence. "Hey, Zev. How's it going?" I heard Alistair jump and curse, and opened my eyes, turning to see Zev standing less than two feet away. His hands were empty, though I knew that meant nothing, but the expression on his face was mischievous, not malicious, and I relaxed. "Let me guess. You were going to help me learn to focus by blowing in my ear or something as a distraction."

 The redness in his cheeks demonstrated the truth to my guess, and I grinned. Alistair grumbled and walked away towards our firepit.

 "Well, bella donna, I am glad to see that with all this...focusing...you are doing, you still pay attention to your surroundings. I am here to watch everyone's backs, but it will make it that much easier if you are also watching your own."

 "Thanks Zev," I replied drily. "I'm so relieved to hear about your concern for my safety."

 "You wound me, cara mia. And here you told Aedan that you trust me."

 "Just because I trust you, amico mio, does not mean I stop 'paying attention'." He smiled proudly. "And by the way, you can quit with the Antivan endearments. I don't speak Antivan other than the bits you taught me, but I'm familiar with your seductive side, sweet pea. Save that for someone who doesn't know you better than you know yourself. And Wynne, because secretly she likes it."

 "My heart cannot take it, my lady. It bleeds for-"

 "Can it Zev. Hey, wait. I'll make you a deal."

 "Oh? Now this I must hear."

 "How's this. You agree not to try to seduce me, flatter me needlessly, or in any other fashion try to wiggle your way into my small clothes, for...let's say one month. Get to know me, a little, without innuendo thrown in. At the end of that time, if you still wish to lay with me, you tell me and I will explain why I don't think we should ever be together. After that I promise to be open-minded and give you a fair chance to change my mind. But if you break this agreement, if you try to charm your way into my tent before then, the deal's off. I will never sleep with you, nor will I tell you why. Do we have a deal?"

 He thought for a moment. "One stipulation: if you come to me during that month, the deal still stands."

 "Agreed." We actually shook hands, solemnly, and the odd look on his face cracked me up. It seemed he didn't know what to talk to me about without sexual innuendo as an icebreaker. I giggled and left him there, sitting down near Aedan by the fire.

 In our tent, later, Aedan whispered conspiratorially. "What was that tonight with Zevran?"

 I told him our agreement, and Aedan peered closely at the smug grin on my face.

 "You wouldn't be planning to mess with the emotions of one of our companions, would you, sweet sister? I know damn well you'll never change your mind, and I know why. Why the tease?"

 "I'm not messing with him. Not detrimentally, at least, I promise. Actually, I'm hoping it will prevent any weirdness later. Zev is equal opportunity when it comes to the gender of his lovers, but he has that typical male weakness for damsels in distress. I'm trying to make sure he doesn't see me as a damsel. I'm hoping that a month of not thinking about me and sex in the same sentence means he'll become your problem, or Morrigan’s or Leli’s. Not mine." Aedan laughed, but I saw something dark pass over his eyes as he considered Zev being his problem. I reached out and squeezed his hand.

 "You're thinking of Rory." He hesitated briefly, then nodded miserably. "It's maybe too soon, honey, but...eventually, you need to consider letting yourself off the hook for that, Aedan. He gave his life to protect you, so you could live, not be a broken shell who never loves again. He would not want you to be alone forever, to live your life lonely. Don't make a farce of his sacrifice."

 Unable to speak, he had one tear leaking down his cheek, and I squeezed his hands softly. He gripped my hands with all his strength, nodded, and then curled up on his bedroll. I didn't let go of his hand until it was my turn to stand watch. I kissed his head softly before crawling out of the tent to sit quietly by the fire. Alistair gave me a look I couldn't interpret as I emerged, but simply stumbled off to his own tent to sleep.

 A couple more days of walking put us just outside of Haven, according to Duncan's map. The road we had been following was little more than a dirt game trail, and had gradually become snowier as we approached, and I wondered how the Brother had found it. We decided to call it an early night and camp, rather than wander into Haven just before dark. We spent a bit of time huddled around the fire going over my notes - the layout of the town, the merchant with a dead Redcliffe knight in the back room, the location of the Chantry up the hill, Father Eirik. Then the temple full of insane cultists, ash wraiths, and dragonlings. And then, of course, the High Dragon. Sten admitted to knowing how to skin a drake to obtain scales, and I briefly grinned as I wondered when we'd finally get to meet Wade and Herren.

 Aedan and Alistair wanted to leave me behind at the entrance to the temple with Brother Genitivi, but I was nervous about disappearing and finding myself lost or separated from them. We decided not to decide until we got there. Because of the earlier night, I was able to start sparring with Aedan earlier than normal, though the snow gave me some difficulty. After a few minutes, Zevran stepped up, pausing us for a moment.

 "You do this so you can learn the art, yes?" I nodded. "Would you allow me to offer some suggestions then?" I nodded again, and his posture changed from the arrogant swagger I was used to, to a purely professional one. He stepped up behind me, and I realised he wasn't quite as short as I'd predicted - he was maybe an inch taller than me. His height was perfect for what he was about to do. And I was impressed - he stopped, perhaps half an inch between our bodies, as if waiting for permission to touch me. I rolled my eyes, huffing impatiently. He chuckled and closed the distance, hands reaching out to grasp my forearms, hips against mine.

 "First you need to learn how to move like a dancer. Close your eyes, and feel the movement." I complied, and despite the intimacy of his touch, I was able to immediately feel the difference between how I was holding myself and how he wanted me to. I adjusted, and realised it changed my centre of gravity so I felt more stable on my feet.

 He was almost whispering in my ear, and it must have looked very intimate, though I noted he was careful to stick to the letter of our agreement - he did not use Antivan, did not use endearments, and kept his language completely neutral - while completely violating the spirit of it. His hands caressed my arms more sensuously than they needed to, his hips clung to mine more firmly, which pressed a bulge beneath his leathers into the curve of my ass. I had been expecting this, and chuckled darkly; I ignored his intended temptation, and just tried to learn from him. Even unconsciously, with his mind on a very different prize, I knew his stance and footwork would be without reproach.

 When it seemed he was done teaching, I decided that two could play his game: I 'accidentally' ground my ass into his groin, enough to feel him twitch slightly, at the same time as twisting to thank him, and rubbing my breasts over the inside of his arm. Smirking at his slight intake of breath, I straightened, tossed my pretend daggers into the woodpile, and then took Aedan's arm and walked away. It's going to take more than demonstrating the existence of a penis to get to me, buddy. Aedan rolled his eyes at me, and I smirked.

 We ate together, as usual, and I was thankful for the stew we were eating – it was getting cold. Supper times were some of my favourites, sitting around the campfire listening to my companions laugh and tease each other and tell stories, though I noticed Alistair was unusually quiet that night. I didn’t think much of it, distracted by Wynne trying, unsuccessfully, to rid herself of an amorous elf. I swear I’m going to end up with an aneurysm trying not to laugh when I overhear companion chatter!

 After supper, Alistair had recruited Wynne for further templar training. He had her casting very small, useless spells, like the balls of fire Tanar had used, and just wanted to see how well I could sense them. We warned Wynne to use the minimum possible mana and snuff the spell if anything happened, asking the rest of the group to try not to startle me. As we'd realised previously, my ability to detect the use of magic in my vicinity was much greater than Alistair's, and we spent some time discussing the differences in what we experienced. I was able to accurately describe Wynne's visualised spells before she actually cast them, but only when she did go ahead and cast it. Apparently just imagining it wasn't enough, there had to be intent. When I described what I could see, Alistair was also able to see it, as though there was a blindfold that I was holding back. It was odd.

 When Alistair had me close my eyes and focus, like he'd been teaching me, I thought I could actually see, in my mind, the flow of mana into the spell. Following that back, I could see it surrounding Wynne, even when she wasn't casting. Once, anyway - I was so surprised I lost my concentration and couldn't get it back, much to the mage's amusement. Maybe I can learn to be a templar some day!

 Sleep was elusive for most of us, with the spectres of a crazy cult and a high dragon hanging over us as they did. I spent half the night sitting up at the campfire, and it seemed that so did everyone else in turns.

 Haven turned out to be just as creepy as advertised, and wasn’t even much bigger than in the game. There were very few people about, other than a surly guard who tried to bar us entrance to the town, and seemed quite unimpressed when Aedan just ignored him and we entered anyway. We went to the merchant to ask a few questions, discovered the body, and had to kill the merchant. The smell of death in the little house was overpowering, and I stumbled outside, retching, while the rest of the group searched for supplies. I really hate being a wuss. Zevran had followed, curiously, but stayed at a distance while I vomited. I briefly wondered what he thought about my evident weakness, but decided not to ask.

 It occurred to me at some point that I had no idea how much coin we had now, or whether I should keep trying to bring handfuls over when I popped back and forth, and resolved to ask Aedan later. Thinking about other things, especially things which didn’t involve blood or gore, helped and I was able to pull myself together by the time everyone else left the building.

 After they emerged, Leliana showing off some new arrows they had found, we avoided the rest of the townspeople we saw and headed straight for the Chantry. To everyone’s relief, the vast majority of the populace fled when we entered, and we only had to kill a few of the reavers and of course Father Eirik. I still threw up after, or dry heaved anyway, since my stomach was empty, and saw Zevran eyeing me oddly. Whatever. Brother Genitivi had been tortured, but was alive, and in mostly okay shape. Wynne cast a couple of spells for healing and rejuvenation, and he was quite energetic after that. He agreed to lead us up the mountain to the temple he had learned about, but instead of one short loading screen, it took half a day of hiking, all uphill, and all cold. Aedan had liberated some warm clothing from the merchant, and between those and my cloak I wasn’t in too bad shape, but I was still wishing earnestly for a warm fire.

 Zevran walked with me as we climbed.

 "Sierra? Are you unwell?"

 "I'm fine, Zev. Why?"

 "You..." he mimed gagging. "I thought perhaps you were suffering an illness."

 "No, no. I'm fine."

 "Perhaps you are with child? Some of the whores where I was raised would become very ill at certain smells..."

 "I'm not pregnant!" I gave the assassin a dirty look. "I just don't like killing. Blood. Violence."

 "You think we were wrong to kill those men?"

 "No, Zev. It was necessary. But necessary doesn't mean it isn't regrettable. Or disgusting. I just wish there was another way."

 "Such as...?" He truly looked confused.

 I sighed. "I just wish it wasn't necessary. That people weren't evil, that everyone could get along."

 "You are...very strange, Sierra."

 "You have no idea, amico mio. None at all."

 It was a little bit warmer once inside the temple, despite the cave-ins and snowdrifts. I was feeling quite freaked out, for some reason, and almost hyperventilated when Aedan again tried to convince me to stay at the entrance with Brother Genitivi. The sheer panic on my face must finally have won, and he agreed to bring me with them. I was happy to promise to stay back when they entered each room; I had no desire to take part in violently ending this cult's existence, no matter how necessary. And I figured there was only so many times I'd be able to throw up before I injured myself...no, staying back won't be a problem. Aedan instructed Prince to stay near me and guard me, which he woofed at and moved to stand by me.

 The map of the temple that I carried in my head was nothing like the map from the game, so the group had to basically randomly clear hallways and rooms. I stayed well back, not looking at the gore, and when it couldn't be avoided I rushed through the rooms, climbing over broken furniture, trying to avoid stepping in blood puddles, with held breath and tunnel vision. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t help but see the odd amputated body part, or meet the unseeing gaze of a corpse. Shale continuously talked about squishing people and enjoying feeling their innards squirt out, I think just to bait me. I'd heard worse on the news back home - discussing it, even understanding it wasn't the problem. The problem was seeing it. Smelling it. Without that, I'd have been fine. So I ignored her, and eventually she quit.

 The place smelled largely like shit, which with a few dozen, cooped-up crazy people wasn’t all that surprising. It didn’t entirely cover the coppery smell of blood from each room they cleared, however, and I was starting to desperately wish for a nose clip or something. I kept forgetting to breathe through my mouth, not that tasting it was much better.

 We found the key to the locked room, and eventually the one that led to the main cultist hideout. The people were as crazy as you might believe wacked out, blood frenzied nut jobs could be, at least from the stuff I could hear them yelling down the hall. Aedan kept trying to talk them down, for which I was grateful, even if none of them ever took him up on it. Finally we reached the area where dragonlings started appearing, and we were back to being surrounded by the little lizards. I kept my daggers out and killed a couple, again watching with disgust as Sten just stomped them with his boots, and Shale started mimicking him. Prince largely chased them around, barking joyfully. Apparently dragonlings are amusing if you're a mabari. It was disgusting. The drakes were a new experience - I understood the theory behind breath weapons, but having one aimed at you is very different than the theory. I got burnt a couple of times, miraculously healed by Wynne each time, and came out of it unscathed with the exception of a bit of singed hair. I wondered what the doctors and nurses were making of burns that showed up for only moments then disappeared. I briefly prayed not to end up disappearing to go back home any time soon.

 Sten skinning the drakes actually bothered me less than watching Leli or Aedan skin a rabbit - apparently, anything with fur is infinitely cuter and therefore more deserving of life - and soon we were the proud owners of six trimmed and cleaned drake scales. A few twisting hallways later and we found ourselves fighting Kolgrim and his pack of extra-nutty lunatics. I huddled in the back, trying to make myself a small target, until it was over. I was still struggling with guilt over my inability to help them, though I managed to keep my concerns to myself. Most of them seemed unbothered by it; Morrigan thought it was ridiculous, but felt since I wasn't much help anyway it didn't matter. Leliana, as usual, tried to shelter me from it and seemed to delight in my innocence. Zevran still looked confused, but refrained from comment. Everyone else just seemed to accept it as another eccentric part of my personality, like not wanting to know what sort of meat the jerky was made up of, and if anything, had seemed irritated by my apologies in the past.

 We tried to creep across the mountaintop past the high dragon, but either the game lied about the ability to bypass that, or it didn't like the smell of someone from Earth, because the moment we went outside it flew down to land and attacked. The beast was majestic, I’d have to give it that. Probably eight feet tall at the shoulder, it was a deep purple on top, with a lighter, more red underbelly, and entirely covered in overlapping scale plates. The wind it stirred as it landed was intense, blowing snow and ice crystals into everyone’s faces, and deafening us.

 Alistair, Sten, and Shale took turns keeping its attention, while Leliana picked shots from a nearby boulder, Wynne healed, Morrigan kept blasting it with ice and something that must have weakened it, and the rogues and Prince darted under legs or over its tail, slashing with daggers and teeth. Its fire breath stank like brimstone, and every time it roared a small avalanche of snow and rocks started from one of the nearby cliffs. The air was frigid, and it seemed to amplify even the softest sounds, which caused echoes to ricochet through the mountain pass.

 Personally, I was so scared, I sank to my knees just outside the door and stared. When the thing finally went down, it was like one of those slow-motion shots from the game - Alistair dropped his shield, leapt up and grabbed a horn at the back of its head, pulling himself up, and then drove his sword with both hands into the soft spot just behind the heavy scales protecting the brain. He tumbled down again, somehow unhurt, landing near me with a grunt.

 Sten went to work again with the skinning, but Alistair, seeing my pale face, rushed over and sat me down, head between my knees, rubbing my back awkwardly with his heavy gauntlets.

 "Sierra?" Aedan approached, dropping to his knees beside me and pulling me into an awkward hug.

 "That was a dragon. A real fucking dragon."

 Aedan chuckled drily. "You were the one who warned us, remember?"

 "Yeah, but...you don't understand. Dragons don't exist. They can't. It's just not...it's not okay for there to be dragons." I was near hysteria, I realised. "I guess I thought they were joking. Exaggerating. Something."

 I could feel Aedan looking around, probably looking for help. No one offered any, and I pulled my shit together with pure willpower. Everyone looked a bit peaked, but I guessed that knowing dragons existed for your whole life made a big difference to your outlook upon encountering one. Morrigan made a few caustic comments about the accuracy of my information, given that I thought the encounter could have been avoided, but I just ignored it.

 "I'm okay. Let's just...let's just go. Get this done." I pushed away from Aedan, stood, and started walking towards the door to the gauntlet. My steps steadied after the first few, and I heard the rustle and clank that meant the rest of the group was following along.

 Despite their enormous size, the doors swung open easily, leading into a huge foyer. The Guardian stood, apparently unmoving for centuries from the dust and debris in the room. I had warned everyone what questions they were going to be asked by the guardian, and as a group we all sort of braced ourselves and approached.

 His question for Aedan led to the obvious conclusion that he regretted leaving his parents behind to die. Duh. Wynne admitted she sometimes felt uncertain, had doubts occasionally. Also duh. Morrigan refused to answer, Zevran said ‘yes’ before even hearing the entire question, and he largely ignored Prince and Shale. Sten admitted that killing a family in a blind panic for a very stupid reason was, well, stupid. I almost called the Guardian 'Captain Obvious', but managed to stifle the flippant remark. Leliana denied that she was using her visions to get attention. I gave him a dirty look for that - I may not have been very religious on Earth, nevermind in Ferelden, but any idiot could see she believed.

 When he moved on to Alistair, I was expecting a question that would bother him less than game canon would imply, but I was surprised. I guess the Guardian knew about Duncan surviving, because instead his question left me standing with my mouth open in shock.

 "Alistair, former templar, you have learned that your templar abilities are very underdeveloped compared to some, but Sierra's rival the most powerful of templars without having undergone the training and the suffering you did to get yours. Do you resent her abilities? Do you feel angry that you weren't granted those abilities instead?"

 Alistair turned to look at me, and paused thoughtfully before answering.

 "I did, at first. Before I knew her, before I understood. But she has no more choice than I have, and while her abilities are impressive, they are unreliable, uncontrolled. She is no more advanced than I am, we are just different. We have much to teach each other, and I do not resent that. Besides, I don’t know the details, but I get the impression that Sierra has seen her share of suffering."

 I smiled brilliantly at him, and he blushed in return. I held my breath as the Guardian turned to me.

 "Sierra, you live in a place where you have nothing and no one. No one misses you, no one notices that you are gone. No one will care if you die, and no one will come to your funeral. Do you believe that you are, indeed, mentally unstable? Did you dream up this world, these people, and that you are a part of it, just to feel important? To have your life feel like it means something? Are you, in fact, insane?"

 I expected this question, had thought about it at length, and still had no answer to give.

 "I...don't know. I hope not." I closed my eyes, not wanting anyone to see me like that. Feeble I could handle; unsure of my own sanity? Hell no. I opened them again in surprise when each of my hands was gripped by another; I looked around and realised I was in a circle of friends, all of whom looked at me with a mixture of affection, sadness, and understanding. Aedan and Leliana held my hands, but Alistair, Wynne, Zevran, and even Morrigan stood around me offering silent emotional support. Sanity or no, this was my family and it was where I wanted to be. I closed my eyes again, offering a silent prayer of thanks to any deity that would listen, and then with a nod, we moved on.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Six: History and Lice

 The riddles in the next room posed no serious difficulty, even without me knowing the answers, and when the door swung open to show Bryce Cousland, Aedan let out a shout and took off at a run, Prince at his heels. I held back, giving him some privacy to talk with his father. I looked curiously at him from my vantage - he may not have raised me, but if Aedan was my brother, this man was my father also. He had a kind smile, and those wrinkles around his eyes that make men look distinguished (and women seek Botox). His hair was salt-and-pepper, his body trim and fit for an older guy. Though as I thought about it, older in this universe wasn't necessarily the same as at home - he was probably in his forties or fifties.

 Aedan hugged him, and I looked around briefly to see if everyone was as heartwarmed by it as I was, only to realise I was alone. All of the others had disappeared. There was nowhere they could have hidden, and I’d have heard at least Shale and Alistair as they walked away, so it had to be magic of some sort. I decided to wait until I could discuss it with Aedan before panicking.

 Aedan and Bryce talked for a minute, and I expected Bryce to fade away, but after a bit, Aedan turned and gestured to me to approach. Nervously I walked closer, and saw Bryce's face light up. He pulled me into a tight hug before I could even greet him, and I awkwardly returned it. Releasing me, he brushed my hair out of my face and gently cupped my cheek.

 "Sierra, my daughter. I am so happy to see you! Your mother will be beside herself. I only have a moment, but I want you to know. I am so, so sorry darling. We didn't know what happened, only that when you were born, you were breathing, your heart was beating, but...you weren't there. We took you to healers, seers, midwives and mages; no one knew what was wrong with you. We tried everything, but...you sickened. We didn't want Aedan to live in the shadow of the sister he had lost so we didn't tell anyone. We loved you so much, and missed getting to know you every day.

 "Pup, you must protect your sister." Aedan swore he would, and I grinned at him. "And Sierra - you belong here, my darling. Stop questioning it, and just believe. For me?"

 I felt tears trickling down my face. He called me daughter. And with that, I finally allowed myself to hope that maybe this really was where I belonged. "Papa?” I just couldn’t call him dad. Or father. “I will try."

 "I must go. I love you so much, my children. Your mother and I both do. Take care of each other..."

 I almost screamed when he disappeared. I clapped my hands over my mouth, holding it in, and collapsed into Aedan's arms. We clung to each other, and I could tell I wasn't the only one crying. Prince stuck his nose into the first opening he found, and for the first time, I was part of a family.

 The rest of the group slowly approached, all looking shaken to one degree or another, but none of them were as feeble as I was, and the pressure to move on became noticeable. Aedan managed to pull himself together, but I was still a right mess. Aedan pulled out my notebook to check on the next fight rather than disturb me where I sat. Realising we were headed for a nasty one, he again instructed Prince to guard me. When the doors swung open, there we all were, facing ourselves, nine combatants and a weak little girl. I stayed curled on the floor, cuddling Prince with all my might, refusing to watch who took the final blow on my doppelganger. I heard Morrigan curse, Sten grunt, Alistair shout something unintelligible, and it was done. Aedan came over and pulled me to my feet, and I held his arm as he half-dragged, half-carried me past our own corpses. Morrigan was whining about templars, and I guessed that evil-Sierra or evil-Alistair had whammied her. Oops.

 In the next room, the combination to the puzzle wasn't even close to that from the game, and I was forced to collect myself to help out. Apparently the puzzle knew how many of us there were, as it required all of us working together to open the doors. Or perhaps they only let in groups of ten. Either way.

 And then, we were in the room, crossed by a massive wall of fire, leading up to an altar. And it occurred to me that somehow I had completely suppressed the realisation that we were all going to have to get naked. Together.

 It wasn't that I was a prude. I'd seen naked men before, and I wasn't a virgin, but there was just something weird about getting naked with a co-ed group. I’d make a terrible orgy participant. And every time I even thought about Alistair naked I ended up in hysterics, or drooling, or both. This ought to be fun.

 Aedan pragmatically just began shucking armour. Leli, Wynne, Zevran, Sten, and even Morrigan followed suit, looking unconcerned. We had decided to have Shale and Prince remain on this side of the fire, which left just Alistair and I, both looking panicked. I met his eyes just long enough to be suddenly even more embarrassed, and finally had a choice between curling back up on the floor with Prince or getting on with it.

 "Oh for the love of God. I can't believe I'm doing this." I stripped as quickly as I could, and swore to myself that when I looked back up, I wouldn't stare. Much.

 Everyone hesitated at the edge of the fire, and finally deciding that if I went first I wouldn't have to see everyone else's expressions (or their nakedness), I stepped through. It sort of…tickled, strangely. The fire didn’t crackle, like a normal fire, and there wasn’t any smoke to speak of. Aedan let out a cry, but I passed through untouched. I kept resolutely looking straight forward until I could hear the rest of them behind me.

 Wynne and Leliana were in raptures over the altar, the statuary, and the urn itself.   Even Aedan and Alistair approached with hushed voices full of awe. I supposed it was rather beautiful, though not being raised religious, and definitely not Andrastian, it didn't hit me quite as hard. Aedan approached the Urn, taking a pinch of the ashes and placing it into a little pouch he carried.

 I briefly wondered if I could convince Aedan and Alistair to use a pinch of the ashes each to cure their Taint, but knew they'd object. I’d tried bringing it up before reaching Haven, and got nothing but dirty looks. But if I was going to attempt to stay in Thedas, to accept that I belonged there, I wasn’t looking forward to losing my brother in thirty years when his Calling came. My suggestion died on my tongue when I caught Aedan’s eye – he obviously guessed what I was going to say, and shook his head once, firmly. I sighed. I had also considered taking a pinch to bring to Avernus in Soldier's Peak, and ruled that out too. He may have been a Grey Warden once, but he was a madman too. We didn't need him curing his own Taint or creating something even worse.

 As it turned out I was able to escape with only a glance at each of my nude companions. The girls didn't bother me, though Zevran was right about Wynne's magical bosom - it didn't sag in the least. Aedan I got just a glimpse of, enough to realise he was as fit as he seemed in armour. Zevran the same, though the hip thrust when he thought anyone was looking just about made me choke with laughter. Sten was even more imposing nude - yikes! I can't un-see that! I tried to avoid looking at Alistair - it was one of the harder things I'd ever tried to do - but couldn't help getting a quick flash of bronze skin and rippling muscles. Blushing furiously I hurried back across the fire wall, shrugging into my armour quickly and studiously ignoring everyone else as they dressed.

 Once finished, we left the temple. We all agreed that no matter how exhausted we were, it would seem somehow sacrilegious to sleep inside the shrine, and we didn’t want to spend an extra second in the temple full of cultist corpses than we absolutely had to. I kept my eye out for the easy shortcut back to the entrance, but apparently that was only a convenience for game purposes. Damn!

 Fortunately Zevran was good with directions, and we all followed him blindly. Aedan had his arm around me, and I barely even looked up from the floor as I walked, mind reeling. I stumbled a few times, vaguely overheard Alistair offer to carry me, but even in my fugue I could hear the insincerity of the offer, and Aedan politely declined on my behalf. Even Shale finally fell silent, keeping her comments about the weakness of flesh-creatures to herself.

 We found Brother Genitivi, and limped down the mountainside in the dark, realising once we arrived that we had no more desire to stay in Haven than we did in the temple. We kept going until the creepy little town was out of sight, and then collapsed into the first clearing we came across. We passed around some dried fruit and jerky, and basically all fell asleep where we sat. I woke some time later, with the sun just barely peeking above the hill behind us. I was curled in my brother's arms - I have a real brother! - and decided I wasn't moving until I had no other choice. I spent some time thinking about suddenly having an actual family, until trying to figure out how in God's name I crossed the barrier between universes repeatedly threatened to break my brain and I quit.

 Everyone else was starting to come around, and after some breakfast that resembled our supper very closely, we set off. We found Bodahn at the camp in the afternoon, and still tired, chose to rest there for the night. We were all quieter than normal at camp, but the normalcy of setting up tents, cooking, and washing took over and restored things a little. No one brought up their visions when we were all separated inside the temple. I was intensely curious, but kept it to myself. I don’t want to talk about it either.

 I spent a while thinking about what Bryce had said to me about belonging in Thedas, and learning to accept that. Do I even want to stay in Thedas? There were definitely pros and cons. I missed indoor plumbing and supermarkets. I missed security and my fancy memory foam mattress. But I didn’t miss the lonely evenings and weekends, the nearly paralyzing inability to make friends and meet people, the countless hours of video games. And no one there missed me. I guess…maybe I do want to stay. Now to figure out if I even can. And what will happen to me when the blight is over and my knowledge is no longer useful…I need to do more training.

 Aedan and I sparred before supper, and Zevran joined us again. He watched us, stopping us frequently to readjust my position, stance, or hold on my weapons. Each time he did, he would step into me from behind, pressing himself against me, hands stroking whatever part they wanted to change, using his hips to alter my posture. When I was in the position he wanted, he would practically purr in my ear, and it was almost impossible for me not to laugh. I supposed that in Ferelden, this was quite provocative behaviour - the number of orders who required vows of chastity alone was an indication of the prudish morality - but where I came from, this was about equivalent to the level of intimacy expected when dancing in a nightclub. Not that I did a lot of clubbing, but I wasn't nearly innocent enough to be thrown by Zevran. And knowing what to expect helped too.

 When we were done, Zev's hands lingered on my waist, and I playfully slapped them away, finally able to laugh again, even if it somehow felt inappropriate. I headed back to the fire, planning to offer help with supper, when I heard an indignant squawk from the direction of the tent Leliana shared with Wynne. Everyone jumped, and I wandered over to investigate. I found Leliana jumping around, pulling at her hair like a crazy person, and I watched for a few moments, amused, before finally asking.

 "Leli? Whatcha doing?"

 "There was...something...in my hair."

 "After what we've just been through, I imagine there's a lot of things in your hair."

 "No! Something moved. I swear, if your dog gave me fleas..."

 Prince whined and I laughed. "Sit down, let me look. Stop jumping around, woman! Hold still."

 I ran my fingers through her hair, and caught sight of something. Looking closer, I sifted through the strands closer to her scalp and swore.

 "What is it? Is it fleas?"

 "No, Leli, it's worse, I'm afraid. I don't know how to tell you this, but...you've got lice." Her horrified look almost set off the giggles. "It's not exactly life-threatening, you know."

 "Lice?" Her tone was a hoarse, mortified whisper. "Are you sure?"

 "Leli, what's wrong? I was just teasing about it being worse than fleas. Lice aren't a big deal."

 "Sierra, I...feel very vain, saying this, but...I don't want to shave my head. I think I'd look terrible bald."

 I cracked up, reaching out to grab her hand in apology. "Is that what's got you worried? Oh, dear. No, you won't have to shave your head. Don't worry. We can fix this. It'd be easier if I could get some medicine from home, but even without it isn't a big deal. Promise."

 "How in Andraste's name did I get lice?"

 "I very much doubt Andraste had anything to do with it, Leli. I'm going to guess one of us borrowed a hat at some point..." I trailed off, thinking. "Like me, blast it. That damn templar helm. Lice spread like wildfire among close contacts. Not to mention blankets and things. We're all going to need treatment. And I only have one comb! Ah well. I guess we'd better let everyone else know so I can get started."

 "Started doing what?"

 I sighed theatrically. "Nit picking."

 Everyone else accepted the news of our likely widespread lice problem with less despair than Leliana, though they all seemed happy that I had a possible cure. I explained how lice worked, as far as I could remember, and how the life cycle required new eggs to hatch new lice. If one could get rid of all the eggs over a two week period, the lice would be gone. The bigger issue was the need for all of us to either scour our helms with something like bleach, or acquire new ones. And leather helms don't scour well, so at the very least four of us required new head gear.

 I insisted everyone wash their hair as well as possible, and used up most of my shampoo to make sure it happened. I grabbed what I needed from my tent, set up a log to sit on near the fire, and gestured to Leliana to sit in front of me. While Aedan and Zev bickered over making supper, I began methodically combing through Leliana's damp hair. Picking nits is slow, annoying work, but I was no stranger to the problem. I chatted with Leli while I worked, and she closed her eyes and just enjoyed me playing with her hair, once I reassured her yet again that this would work.

 "Sierra?"

 "Yeah?"

 "How do you know how to do this?"

 "I spent hours doing it when I was a kid."

 "Maker's breath, why?"

 "Well, there were always a lot of children around. Lice were rampant where I grew up, and if someone didn't get rid of them, we'd have infected half of the country. The social workers wouldn't let us go to school if we were known to have lice, so...I picked."

 Everyone had gathered around the fire, and most were apparently quietly listening to me. I flushed, but had come to the realisation inside the temple that if I was going to act like this was my family, they deserved to know a bit about my background, so I just kept talking. It was a struggle, but I managed to keep my voice emotionless, my face neutral, like I was talking about someone else. I didn’t want attention, or God-forbid, pity, for this.

 "I was found, as a baby, by a homeless woman. No one knows where I came from, or who my parents were. They apparently had some problems with abandoned babies, back then, so they set up places where you could drop off an unwanted baby and they'd be taken care of. So the homeless woman who found me took me there. I was apparently still damp, like I'd just barely been born.

 "Back home...you can't be adopted unless your parents sign some papers. So since no one knew who mine were, I couldn't be put up for adoption. Instead, there's a system in place to take care of unwanted kids like me. It's the same system that will take kids away from parents who beat them or whatever. So there's quite a few homeless children floating around. Someone decided, I don't know who, that orphanages were cruel and impersonal, so they came up with another plan. It's called the foster system.

 "The government...the crown, I suppose is the closest thing, will pay families to take care of unwanted children. So virtually anyone can apply, and they try to check to make sure you're not some pervert who would hurt kids, and then they stick one or two (or rarely, several) kids into these homes and pay for their upkeep. The families are called 'foster'. Foster-mother, foster-father, foster-home, foster-child. Some of those homes are really good people, who just want to help. Most of them are people who are desperate for coin, and try to take advantage. They take the upkeep pay and refuse to use it on the child, keeping it for themselves. The kids are neglected, or even abused, and no one believes children when they complain about stuff like that, so they rarely get caught. A very few of the foster-parents are actually pedophiles. People who sexually abuse kids."

 I was speaking quietly, but the horror on the faces of everyone around me told me that it was loud enough. Aedan looked like he would be sick.

 "So anyway, once you're in the system, you tend to get moved around a lot. Some of the families aren't very stable, and lose their approval to be foster-families. Sometimes they decide they don't like you, because you complain too much or you're too noisy or whatever, and they send you back. So every few years, at least, and more often every few months, you get taken from one foster-home and put in another. It gets worse as you get older, too - at least the little ones are cute, and they don't know any better so they don't get families in trouble if they forget to feed them or treat them cruelly.

 "I was raised by fifteen different foster-families, until I was old enough to escape the system. At sixteen, I applied to be considered an adult and moved out on my own. I was lucky - I never ended up in the families where the kids were sexually abused - but I only had one foster-home where they cared about me as anything more than an income source.”

 My stomach was rebelling, by this point, and the odd ache in my chest that I’d always felt whenever I thought of family was raging. I hoped that, from years of public speaking, nothing would show on the outside.

 "In the foster-homes, I often had little foster brothers and sisters, and if I was the oldest, it would be my job to take care of them. And they frequently got lice. There's a medicine at home that makes it easy to get rid of lice, but it's expensive so usually the parents wouldn't buy it. So I learned how to do this."

 Alistair cleared his throat. "Does this have something to do with your nightmare? From the Fade?"

 I nodded. "Not the lice, but the rest, yes. That...place was a mental institution. A place they stick people who are too crazy to be out in the world, where healers can take care of them. Since all this started, I've been afraid someone there would decide that I was insane and put me in one of those places. And then, I have always been lonely, I suppose. And I suspect every orphan or adopted kid out there wonders if they have a family somewhere that they don't know about. So they played on both things - my fear of being locked up, and my desire to have a family. In the nightmare, I was crazy and had forgotten I had a family; Aedan and Leliana were my siblings, and Theron was my husband, and they were trying to convince me that everything I could remember wasn't real. And you were the healer who locked me in there." His eyes were shadowed, and I knew my own pain was on display a little too visibly. I rubbed my face, cleared my throat, and changed the subject.

 I had finished with Leliana's hair, and I explained that we would have to do it every couple of days for two weeks to be sure they were gone. She nodded, then reached down and squeezed my hand before heading to the cookpot.

 "Next!" I called, and Aedan approached. I gestured for him to sit, but he surprised me by kneeling in front of me and hugging me to his chest. His voice was hoarse with emotion, when he pulled away, and he told me he loved me before kissing my forehead. Tears threatened, but I managed to stave them off.

 His shorter hair was easier, and it only took me a few minutes to finish. I tried convincing Leli to watch what I was doing, so she could continue if I disappeared, but she was totally disgusted and couldn't bear it. Wynne was completely disinterested in watching, to my surprise, and seemed to prefer reading her book to helping out. Zevran ended up sitting beside me and agreeing instead.

 "Ah, I wish I had known this when I was back in the whorehouse in Antiva! Every time lice went through there, we all had to shave our heads and the whores wore wigs until it grew back in."

 "I bet it was the wigs that the lice were living in."

 "No doubt! We shall have to spread news of this miraculous cure."

 "Unfortunately it won't work very well here. I've never seen a fine enough comb for it." I showed him the closely spaced teeth on my plastic comb. "I'm going to have to start importing combs every time I go back. The metal ones are even better, actually."

 "I'm assuming you need this treatment as well." He gestured to the comb. "May I?"

 I agreed and he went to work. It takes at least an hour to do it well on long hair, and as the person being treated, it's actually quite relaxing. I closed my eyes and just enjoyed it, even though he did seem to brush my neck, ears, and cheeks more often than strictly necessary. Once he was done, he returned my comb and took his place in front of me.

 His hair was soft and silky, and a joy to play with. I meticulously combed through it, making sure to give him the same treatment he gave me - 'accidentally' stroking the tips of his pointed ears, or leaning forward so that the curve of my breast nudged his shoulder. By the time I was done, I was quite certain I knew which of us had been more affected, and it wasn't me. When I declared myself finished, he sighed softly, stood, thanked me, and walked off into the bush. I giggled to myself and then motioned Morrigan over.

 "Next!"

 Long before I finished everyone, my arms were too tired to continue and Zevran had to take over. I was thus saved from having to do Alistair's, to my relief. Alistair seemed less pleased, but he held his tongue and submitted. To Zev's credit, he waited until he was finished with Alistair before making any suggestive comments.

 I also had everyone air out their blankets, using sticks to beat them and try to delouse them as well as possible. I knew we would need to wash them in hot water, and sooner rather than later, but as we had no extras it would have to wait a bit. Bodahn mentioned he knew of a hotspring on the way back to Redcliffe where the water was too hot to bathe, and actually warmed the air around it - if we camped close enough to it, we should be able to wash our blankets and still be warm enough to allow them to dry overnight.

 That evening I pulled Zev aside at one point when no one was looking.

 "Will...will you do me a favour?"

 "If it is within my power, then yes."

 "Do you have your tattoo needles?" Zevran's eyebrows rose and he smirked.

 "You wish me to mark you?"

 "Yes."

 "You know it is painful, yes?" I nodded.

 "I've had one before." This definitely got his attention. I tucked the hem of the pants of my armour to show him my tiny rose, only to have my jaw drop – it wasn’t there. I smacked myself in the forehead; of course it wasn’t – this body didn’t get a tattoo. I shrugged, embarrassed and uncertain how to explain it; he just raised an eyebrow.

 "What is it you'd like to have done?"

 I described what I was looking for. I wanted it small enough to hide, large enough to see the detail, and on my back where no one would see it unless I was naked. I sketched a rough design out into the dirt with a stick, and he nodded. He asked a few questions about colours and shading, which I declined.

 "Will you tell me why?"

 "No. At least, not right now." He studied my face for a few moments, and finally agreed.

 I followed him to his tent, crawling in and unlacing my leathers enough that he could get at my back. He prepped the skin with some sort of oil and began, freehand. I was intensely curious, but resolved to trust in his artistic ability. It was painful, but my meditation practice with Alistair came in handy and I was able to tune it out, clearing my mind and thinking of nothing. How long we sat like that, I wasn't sure, but it must have been hours. As the light waned, he lit a couple of candles, and I vaguely wondered if he would have enough light to see. He didn’t complain, so I decided to trust him.

 When he was done, we used a crude mirror that he carried along with the small compact mirror I had brought so he could show me. It was perfect. In stark black outline, a griffon and a dragon were squaring off, only the outline of their profiles, in the centre of a Chantry starburst. The dragon was breathing fire, and the griffon appeared to be squawking in defiance. And I swore I saw what looked like the letters A and S in the swirls of the fire. I pointed them out and raised an eyebrow. Zevran kept his face impassive, but his eyes sparkled as he lied to me.

 "Purely random. If you see letters, it is because you see what you want to see." I didn't believe him. "Do you wish me to change it?"

 I stared a little bit longer. "No, Zev. It's perfect. Thank you." My smile was warm and he returned it, seeming very pleased with himself. I chose to ignore it. He handed me a by-now familiar small red vial, instructing me to drink a few drops four times a day to promote healing and prevent infection. Apparently using a poultice or drinking too much could ruin the dye. It was only slightly sore before, and I could barely feel it after drinking the potion. Too bad they didn’t have these potions on Earth when I got my rose! I recalled the dressing changes and vitamin E cream applications with amusement. Zevran told me I didn’t need to protect it much or keep it covered as long as I drank my drops.

 I slept heavily, again ignoring the veiled looks from Alistair and Wynne as I climbed into and out of Aedan's tent. I knew I could have cleared it up - explained how Aedan and I felt about each other, what Bryce Cousland had said to me inside the temple - but I wasn't ready to talk about it, and Aedan seemed content to let me choose how much to say.

 We packed up for the two week trek back to Redcliffe. I spent some time riding the cart, dealing with Bodahn's and Sandal's hair, and chatting with the talkative dwarves. I also spent some time teaching Leliana more songs from home, though only when no one else was listening. I spent the rest of the long days on foot circulating through talking to everyone. I was back to our usual evening routine of sparring with Aedan (with Zevran 'helping', and more often flirting), followed by supper and templar training with Alistair. For the first couple of days the tattoo was slightly tender, and I was grateful for Bodahn’s cart to hold our gear. By the time I’d finished my little red vial, I couldn’t even feel it anymore, though when I had Zevran check he told me it was still puffy and would take a few weeks to be perfect again.

 Zevran and Aedan started sparring with each other while I did templar training. The difference between their skill level and mine was incredible, and a few times before or after my templar practice I watched in awe as they danced around each other with deadly grace. They started spending time comparing styles, weapons, and armour, and I grinned to see Aedan looking so relaxed. Some of the grief that had been almost palpable the past few weeks had been replaced with an easy smile and a ready joke, and I couldn't have been happier.

 On the fourth night I sat with Alistair, for once alone (instead of with Wynne or Morrigan) practicing some focused visualisation that I wasn't having much luck with. We were outside of camp, as distraction wasn't really the point, and once I had fumbled my way through it and finally given up with a headache, I stood to go back to camp. Alistair seemed irritable, and had made a couple of sarcastic comments about my lack of progress, which was quite unlike him. Deciding that I didn't want to deal with a cranky Alistair, I was sort of rushed about leaving the little clearing we'd been sitting in.

 "Oh, wow, not even going to hide it tonight, hey?"

 "Uh...what?" I turned back, brow furrowed in confusion.

 "Don't mind me. Go ahead and rush back to Aedan. Or is it Zevran now? I can't keep track."

 "Excuse me?" He either didn't notice or chose to ignore the heat in my face, and continued blithely on.

 "Well there's been such a parade, I'm having a hard time keeping them all organised. I mean, between sharing a tent with Duncan, and the way Cailan and Teagan look at you, and then into Aedan's tent, and now the way Zevran touches you? I can't figure out whether you're looking to find the best protector, or just like the variety. But don't let me stand in your way, they're probably back there waiting to vie for your attention."

 I had hit my limit. That, of all the people I had met in Ferelden, the one I cared about most could look at me that way, could assume what he had, was too much. My temper was well and truly lost, somewhere, and with a shriek I reached out and grabbed the offending bastard by his ear. I dragged him, cursing and hobbling along, over to the campfire, finally letting go with a shove to Alistair's posterior that sent him reeling over to stand near where everyone else was sitting and chatting, rubbing his ear. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared up at me in shock.

 "The very next person to call me a whore, to even imply it, is going to find out the hard way whether I've learned to use this shiny dagger I carry around with me." I flourished the dagger ostentatiously and then slipped it back into its sheath. My face was deadly serious, and I must have looked incredibly angry because everyone stared at me, open-mouthed in shock. "Now all of you listen to me, because I'm only going to say this once.

 "I have never had sex with Duncan, nor will I. Same goes for Theron and Teagan. I have not had sex with him," I pointed to Aedan, "him, her, her, him or her," pointing to Zevran, Leliana, Morrigan, Sten, and Wynne in sequence. "If you don't believe me, because why would you if you think I'm such a slut? Ask each of them. I have no intention of having sex with any of them, and if I decide to change my mind, I'll be sure to submit a request for your approval in triplicate, Your Majesty." This last was spit in Alistair's direction, and my face must have looked truly frightful because he paled slightly. "Now I'm going over there, if anyone needs me. And Alistair? Stay the hell away from me."

 I turned to walk away, and saw Zevran's shocked expression morph into one of bemusement as he opened his mouth to make some sort of smart comment. Before he said a word, I had the dagger out of its sheath and threw it across the small clearing to thunk into the wood of the small stump he sat on, right between his legs. I was amazed – I’d never thought to throw a dagger before, and doubted I could repeat that shot if my life depended on it. To his credit, Zevran didn't jump or tumble back in surprise, but instead schooled his expression, cleared his throat slightly, pulled the knife out of the wood, and said "So, uh, should we get a start on supper?" I smirked in grim satisfaction, collecting my dagger and stalking off through our small camp to go sit by myself on the far side of Bodahn's wagon. The dwarf took one look at my face as I walked by, grabbed Sandal by the arm and marched him away to leave me in peace.

 I sat for probably half an hour shaking with rage, before the hurt finally broke through. The first couple of tears had just fallen when Aedan, with impeccable timing as usual, crept up and slid down beside me. He didn't say anything, just put his arm around me and pulled me against him. I cracked, shuddering through heaving sobs as he just held me. Finally when I settled, he cleared his throat.

 "Sierra, I realise this doesn't help right now, but he's only asking out of jealousy."

 "Doesn't make him less of an asshole."

 "Agreed. Completely. Believe me, I'm not defending him; although, actually I do feel a bit sorry for him with the way everyone jumped on him after you left. I don't imagine Leliana, Wynne, or even Morrigan have left much of him unbruised, to be honest." I smiled, grateful yet again to have true friends for the first time in my life. "I'd have killed him myself if I didn't know what was going on. All I was trying to say is that he wouldn't care which tent you slept in unless he cared about you."

 I jumped slightly. "You think he cares? Why would he, if he assumes I've slept with everyone who isn't him?"

 "He doesn't think you have, Sierra. He's scared that you have. And big macho men don't tend to handle being scared or jealous very well. Add that to you avoiding him..."

 "I don't avoid him. I've been training with him every evening for weeks!"

 "But you don't talk to him. Not like you do with the rest of us. You don't joke, or tease, or touch him. He notices."

 "I can't, Aedan. I...he...we can't be together, not ever. And it hurts too much to talk to him knowing that."

 "If you love him, sweet sister, then at least tell him that. He's hurt and doesn't know what to make of you. Can you blame him? You smile at him like he's your personal sunshine one minute, then refuse to look at him or answer a direct question the next. You tell him that in your nightmare, he's the one locking you up. And then you flirt with Zev and share a tent with me... the poor guy is completely confused, not that it gives him an excuse to imply you're a whore, I realise. Just tell him. Give him a chance to keep his heart in one piece."

 "I can't risk it. I...if he tried to convince me...Aedan, with five minutes concerted effort he'd be in my bed, consequences be damned. I can't give him the chance to change my mind. Although perhaps now would be the time - I think I'd rather stab him than look at him right now."

 Aedan shook his head. "And would it be the worst thing that could happen, if he convinced you to give him a chance? If you’re going to accept that you’re from here, that you belong here, perhaps it’s not so unreasonable for you to consider a relationship here.” He sighed. “I can't force you. But I think you're being more than a little unfair to him, don't you?" He left me, then, and the grief took me again. I stayed alone, far from the only people I knew in the entire world, and wallowed in my own misery until I finally crawled into the tent Aedan and I shared and slept.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Bunnies and Small Talk

 When I heard silence and felt something under me that wasn’t the sharp rock I'd been too lazy to move from under my shoulder, I knew I was back at home. I didn't even open my eyes before succumbing and crying some more. When I'd finally cried myself out, I rolled onto my back and tried to take stock, again. It was dark, and I seemed to be alone, which meant I wasn't in the ICU, which was good. I fumbled around until I found a button that turned on the bedside light. I was in a two-bed room, but the other bed was empty. I still had the strange IV sticking out of my collar bone, but no other tubes or wires. I needed to go to the bathroom, though, and I actually felt hungry for once. I pushed the button for the nurse, and waited.

 An older nurse came bustling in after a few minutes, smiling at me. She didn't seem shocked to see me awake, so at least someone had warned her about my weird habit of dropping into a coma at random and waking up just as suddenly. She did give me a strange look as I asked for my clothes before agreeing to even pee, and put on all my heavy gear and my boots.

 "Are you okay to get up, sweetheart?"

 I was confused. "Sure, why wouldn't I be?"

 "Well, most people feel a little...weak, after waking up from seventeen days in a coma." She eyed me, bouncing on my heels in my hiking boots. "Looks like you're good to go. Bathroom's over there - there's a shower if you want one later. I'll just go let your doctor know you're awake."

 The bathroom was a shock. I looked nothing like myself in the mirror. Or, more accurately, I looked something like my Fereldan self. I'd lost some more weight - not enough to be unhealthy, but enough to uncover the fact that I might have a bit of a girlish figure one day. It changed the shape of my face, somehow, and with how my hair had grown, I thought that my companions in Ferelden might even recognise me.

 My scalp was itchy, I noted, and I decided to take a shower later. I went back to my bed, fishing through the cupboard nearby, pocketing the coin and more bottles of shampoo. The nurse popped her head back in to tell me breakfast wasn't for another hour, but that the cafeteria was open if I wanted to go down there. I did, and ate the best, largest breakfast I could remember eating in years. It was nice to have fresh fruit, and eggs, and milk, and sausages, and not worry about how they'd been stored or what they were made from. For all that, it wasn't nearly as satisfying without all the teasing and chatting I'd become accustomed to during mealtime over the past weeks.

 The doctor showed up not long after I arrived back in my room. The only thing he had to report was that in my absence, I'd been assigned a 'guardian' - someone to make decisions for me when I was unconscious. He was eager to have me meet with her as soon as possible, because he was still having trouble trying to keep me without extra accoutrements like feeding tubes, despite the forms I'd signed. I agreed to meet with her as soon as she was available, and the nurse left a message for her to come. We talked about my dreams a bit, including the odd burns that showed up and disappeared just as quickly. Neither of us had scientific explanations, so we just let it be.

 I contemplated for a bit, and finally decided to show him my tattoo. His face was rather priceless when he saw it - fresh and inflamed as it was - and knew I couldn't have had it done in hospital. I think, despite everything, he thought my dreams were just my brain's way of making sense of my medical problem. He stared, open-mouthed, at the proof that not only was he wrong, he was very, very out of his depth. I shrugged - at least it wasn't just me whose mind was about to explode anymore.

 During our conversation he caught me scratching my head a number of times, and finally pulled my hands away and took a look.

 "What the hell?" He was suddenly almost shouting, and I couldn't understand it, and then I realised.

 "Oh, let me guess. I've got sodding lice."

 He stopped shouting and stared at me. "...uh, yeah. How did you know?"

"I've had it before." True, though not the answer to the question he’d asked me. "And I have it in my dream. I guess I could use some Nix and some of those combs, hey?"

 He seemed confused, and definitely didn't understand why I wanted several metal lice combs, but agreed without too much trouble. Promising to be back the next day, he wandered off to order lice treatment. I heard him shouting at the nurse outside, probably wondering how I'd managed to contract lice in hospital. I'll have to do something nice for her later, since I can't seem to convince anyone of the truth...

 I treated myself with Nix while fully dressed, much to the nurse's amusement, and then showered as quickly as possible and got dressed again before allowing her to comb out the nits. I discreetly pocketed three of the combs while she wasn't paying attention. I considered stealing the bottle of nix, but there was nowhere near enough to treat eleven of us, so I gave up. Finally the court-appointed guardian showed up. I repeated my same requests - no tubes unless blood work showed I was sick, no ICU admissions unless I was truly on my deathbed. She looked at me like I was crazy, but nodded and took notes and I hoped she got the point even if she didn't understand why. I spent the rest of the day bored to tears.

 I paced the hallways, walked to the cafeteria and back a dozen times. I practiced meditating, but that got me thinking about Alistair, and then my concentration was shot. I worked on my footwork like I did with Aedan, trying to make it look like tai chi or something. I pestered nurses and porters, cleaning staff and other patients, trying to stir up some sort of conversation, but they were all busy, and none of them were Aedan or Leliana. I missed my brother, and that triggered another bout of crying. I had difficulty falling asleep, unsure if it was due to anger at Alistair, missing everyone in Ferelden, or just a lack of the usual amount of exercise I'd been getting. It seemed strange to miss exercise, but walking all day had just become natural to me. Weird.

 I was still hellishly angry at Alistair, but thinking about it, I realised – it still wasn’t enough to make me want to stay on Earth. I was a Fereldan, if I had anything to do with the decision. I shook my head; the long-term implications were staggering. I put on my iPod headphones and listened to the songs I'd been teaching Leliana, and finally dozed off.

 ********

 When I woke, I was in a tent. It was clearly one of ours, but looking around, it definitely wasn't the one I shared with Aedan. It wasn't Leli's, either. I briefly wondered if the Maker (or whoever) had a sick enough sense of humour to put me in Zevran's tent, but then I looked again and saw a tiny statuette by the pillow. A dragon. Oh for the love of God.

 I sat up, looking at my boots and jackets with satisfaction, then finally crawled out of the tent. Alistair was sitting watch by the fire, and he jumped when I emerged. I gave him a dirty look, which shut him up nicely, crept across to Aedan's tent, and crawled in. He woke as I entered, and his face registered relief. He pulled me into a hug, and I sighed in contentment. I had to unpack my bedroll, and I quietly described waking in Alistair's tent as I worked.

 "Your Maker has a sick sense of humour, you know. I'm starting to believe Leli - he isn't gone from this world. He's just far more sarcastic than you know, so you don't recognise him." Aedan was in stitches by the time I was ready and collapsed into bed. He reached out to hold my hand, as usual, and I fell asleep again.

 Alistair was uncharacteristically quiet in the morning, but everyone else seemed happy to see me. I gave Aedan the last of my medieval coin and showed off the lice combs I stole. Everyone laughed about me discovering I had lice there too, and I stuck my tongue out liberally at anyone who giggled. I avoided Alistair and walked with everyone else, even skipping along beside Sten for a while. I wasn't exactly trying to rub it in his face, but I was sure he noticed and that left me feeling catty and hollow, instead of satisfied like I'd hoped. I sparred with Aedan, flirted a bit more with Zevran than usual, then set up a lice treatment station and spent the evening doing that instead of learning templar skills. We had a line going - three of us picking at a time (after convincing Leli to help), and again I managed to avoid doing Alistair's hair, though I wondered if Leliana had engineered that. And she pulled his hair a little harder than necessary too, I noticed with half a grin. I cried in bed that night, trying to stay silent and not wake Aedan, but he was too observant and pulled me into his arms. I sobbed, hoping no one heard, and finally fell asleep on his shoulder.

 In the morning Alistair looked worse for wear, and something inside me softened. I was still angry, but I knew that I was over-reacting because of how I felt, knew he hadn't meant what he said, not really. And I still loved him, completely inappropriately. So I stopped purposefully avoiding him, but didn't give him the chance to discuss it either. That evening, I found a clearing like where we would normally sit, set up logs for both of us should he choose to join me, and sat down to practice meditating. After a few minutes he approached me, looking anxious.

 "So show me that trick again? I still can't see the flow like you said I should." I kept my face carefully neutral, while his radiated relief. He sat down and dove into a discussion of magical auras, both of us pretending that nothing had ever happened.

 The next day brought us a darkspawn ambush near the turn to Honnleath. Aedan and Alistair got jumpy, but the group of them must have been moving at a full run because we were in the thick of things before we'd had much warning. Aedan shouted for me to get back, but he needn't have worried; they ignored me, as always, and two of them fell to my daggers as they turned their unprotected backs to me. Once the group had been dispatched, I noticed Zevran looking at me strangely.

 "What? I don't know why either, but darkspawn ignore me. It's like they can't see me or something. Why are you looking at me like that?"

 "You aren't..." he mimed gagging again.

 "Yeah, well, they're not human." I saw his face go dangerously blank, and tried to think what I'd said that would bother him. "Wait, I mean...they're not people. I don't see elves as any different from humans, Zev. I wasn't making a distinction based on race." He relaxed his expression, and I sighed. "Darkspawn...aren't people. They're monsters. Why would I feel sick over killing monsters?"

 "I have no idea. Why do you feel sick over killing rabbits?"

 I blushed. "It's...different. Rabbits are cute. And you expect me to eat them." The whole group laughed and I turned scarlet. "Yeah, yeah, make fun of the city girl."

 The rest of the journey back to Redcliffe was uneventful, except for one night spent shivering while all our blankets were washed in Bodahn's hot spring. After another week of travel, we could see the lake in the distance. Our lice were gone, much to everyone's delight, and only once had I been stuck combing through Alistair's hair. It was soft and golden, and I fought off mental images of more pleasant reasons to run my hands through it. Even the residual anger wasn't enough to keep me safe.

 Our return to Redcliffe was greeted by a very pleased Bann Teagan, a grim looking Theron – damn! Now I'm going to have to remember his alias again – and a surprise; Tomas.   We were all so relieved to see him - well, Alistair, Aedan, and I at least - that we almost bowled him over in our hurry to exchange handshakes, shoulder slaps, and in my case, a hug and kiss on the cheek. Everyone was exhausted - we'd practically run the last few miles - and Eamon needed to be given the ashes, so we decided to send almost everyone to bed, except Alistair and Teagan who went upstairs to deal with the administration of said miracle cure, and Aedan and I who settled in the library with Tomas and Theron to bring them up to date. We told them about our travels, our new additions, Shale and Zevran, and the insane cult in Haven. Theron swore that once he was able, he'd send a detachment of military to mop up the remains of the cult and protect the urn.

 Duncan was very interested in my new-found templar abilities, and the continued inability of the darkspawn to see me even when I was standing in front of them. We discussed it until we heard footsteps approaching.

 Alistair and Teagan returned to report that Eamon seemed to be sleeping more naturally, and they hoped he'd rest overnight. Isolde was keeping watch. We decided to have Tomas tell everyone what was happening in Denerim in the morning, and scattered to find ourselves beds. Tomas insisted on walking me to my room, and I didn't object - I still had no desire to end up anywhere alone with Theron.

 "Something happened, with Theron, didn't it."

 It was actually sort of cathartic telling someone the whole story - I was keeping Aedan and Alistair in the dark to protect Theron's health. I knew Tomas would understand, and I was right.

 "Thank you for keeping that secret. I can only guess what would happen if Aedan or Alistair found out."

 I nodded. "I didn't go through all that to save him only to allow him to die from a dagger in the back one day to avenge my honour. Though it turns out Alistair would likely be angry with me, not him."

 "What?" Duncan looked shocked.

 "He...thinks I've been sleeping around. I...when you left, I started sharing Aedan's tent. Not his bed, just his tent. And Zevran is an incorrigible flirt, and Theron didn't make any attempt to hide staring at me...He thinks I've slept with all of you. Probably Sten too, honestly. Everyone but him."

 "Oh, Sierra. I know how much that must hurt you."

 "I'll be fine. It's probably better - it will keep him away from me." He squeezed my hand.

 "I don't think I can do anything about Alistair, but...if something occurs to me I'll let you know. Theron and I have had some serious discussions, since I arrived, on discretion and what it means to be a leader. I broached it as if I was talking about Aedan, but I think he got the picture. I will try to keep him away from you, as much as possible."

 I thanked him, impulsively hugged him again, and then bid him goodnight to collapse into the bed with Leliana, falling asleep half dressed.

 In the morning, after baths and breakfast, we reconvened in the library. Solona joined us, but stayed quiet at the back of the crowd. Eamon had stirred, briefly, and though he wasn't yet awake, it seemed he was improving. Duncan took the lead.

 "Things in the capital are...worse than I would have believed. Worse than it seems like Sierra even predicted. There is rioting in the streets because of the rumours flying about Loghain abandoning the battle at Ostagar. The army is being used for riot control, only marginally effectively. Loghain was a great general, in his time, but...something has happened. He's either gone mad or he's losing support of the nobles who are supposed to be with him and doesn't have enough manpower. I can't say which.

 "Rendon Howe is the Arl of Denerim and Teyrn of Highever. He has been capturing people, noble and commoners alike, torturing them. I tried to free them, but wasn't able to - his security is too good, and I didn't want to be responsible for what Loghain would do if I assassinated him. I was able to intercept Riordan, and he's on his way back to Orlais to try to bring more Wardens across. He's got some secret routes to smuggle people in...

 "The Alienage is closed to outsiders, but I was able to sneak in and speak with Valendrian. He has warned the elves about the Tevinters - I can't keep the blasted slavers away, but at least the elves will be suspicious from the start and not walk into slavery by mistake."

 Theron finally broke in and starting ranting about Loghain, which I'd been waiting for since seeing Tomas' face. I knew they must have discussed it multiple times before we got back, but he seemed to be looking for allies to help him convince Tomas that he should return to the capital and retake his throne. He appeared crestfallen when no one took his side, and finally stormed out. Tomas rolled his eyes and we all carried on.

 "Tomas, I...am worried about something. About how we are going to get him back to his throne. Because...it turns out Anora is just as bad as Loghain in some ways, completely power-mad, and I don’t think she can be allowed to remain ruling. And she is quite possibly barren, which leaves us with no heir to the throne. If Loghain doesn't manage to kill him for returning, she'll try to kill him to prevent him from putting her aside. At least, I wouldn't put it past her. So what do we do? We can't deal with this civil war just to have another on our hands if he dies."

 "I'm hoping Eamon might have some ideas on that, Sierra, because I surely do not."

 Teagan jumped in. "I have an idea, but I think I should wait to see if Eamon agrees. For now I think the best plan is to continue gathering information and allies."

 That led to a lively discussion of where to go next. We had Orzammar, the Dalish, and Soldier's Peak to deal with; Marjolaine gunning for Leliana necessitating a trip to Denerim at some point; Flemeth to kill - it turned out Aedan had found the grimoire in the Circle Tower and given it to Morrigan, with the predictable result that the apostate wanted her 'mother' dead. It was a bit overwhelming. And Tomas planned to go trying to scout out the horde, see if he could locate the Archdemon, so we were on our own to do it. Again.

 We agreed to spend two days in Redcliffe to see if Eamon awoke, and to think about our plans in the meantime. We separated after that decision; Tomas left to find Theron; Aedan and Zevran took off together leaving me with Prince, and I watched them go with narrowed eyes. Wynne wanted to examine Eamon, and dragged Morrigan along. Solona left on her own, I assumed to join Jowan. I wondered how that was going, but didn’t get the chance to ask. Shale and Sten seemed content to hide within the castle. Alistair and Leliana were both headed to the Chantry to pay their respects, leaving me at loose ends. Teagan pulled me aside and informed me that he was going to visit the orphanage, inviting me to join him.

 I had slipped into a dress instead of armour when I'd woken - it felt weird to be so unprotected after weeks on the road - so I grabbed my cloak and joined him with Prince at our heels. The orphanage was wonderful. The children all looked happy and healthy, and had been joined by four others who had been found at an outlying farm. No one was quite certain but it seemed they had been attacked by bandits, who killed the parents leaving two little girls and two boys. How the children survived was anyone’s guess – they were all in shock and even the eldest, who was only seven, couldn’t seem to talk about it. Bevan and the seven-year-old were play-sword fighting, while the older girl helped with the babies and the younger girl played with dolls. Bella and Kaitlyn looked busy, but happier than I'd seen them. Teagan, Prince, and I spent a hectic morning crawling on the floor and chasing after giggling youngsters, and we were all spent by the time we left for lunch.

 When we returned, we received a report that Eamon had awoken briefly, and Teagan rushed off to check on him. Prince collapsed near the hearth of the main hall and went to sleep. I found Morrigan reading in the library, and settled in to join her. She put her book down and chatted with me, which just seemed so surreal somehow. With the whole 'mysterious witch' thing going on, it was easy to forget she was just a woman, and one with no experience in social interaction.

 We talked a bit about Flemeth; in the game, I felt like it was some sort of manipulation on the part of Morrigan when she asked me to kill the elder witch. But it was clear, talking to her, just quietly one on one, that she was absolutely terrified of her mother. We couldn't decide, between us, which was worse - not to have parents, or have a mother and find out she only wanted you so she could steal your body. I also asked if she thought her mother would know anything about me, or who I was and where I came from. She thought not - her mother had told her of visions of what was to come, including the fact that only two Grey Wardens survived Ostagar and that one of them would die to end the Blight without the blood magic ritual, and also of Ferelden in civil war without a King; she never mentioned me or my strange abilities, nor did she know that Duncan and Cailan survived.

 I asked her what she intended to do if the Grey Wardens turned her down when she offered the blood magic ritual that could save whoever took the killing blow. As per the game, she indicated she would likely leave; her only reason for being part of the battle was to end up pregnant with an Old God. I spent some time talking to her about friendship and safety in groups, and hoped she might consent to stick around. She left the question unanswered, but it wasn't a direct 'no', either. I'll take it.

 "So...the whiny Chantry boy."

 "What? What about him?"

 "I will not claim to understand why, but ‘tis obvious how you feel about the simpleton."

 "I..."

 "And I do not understand. He does seem to return the feeling, and I dare say some experience in adult relations would benefit him; you are not entangled with anyone else, that I can see. So why have you not just bedded him?"

 "It's not that easy, really."

 "But it is! He is attractive enough if you like that sort of thing, and you are a beautiful woman; quit mooning over him, go lay with him, and then you can leave it behind. Be done with him."

 "Oh, Morrigan. If I didn't care for him, that might work. But I wouldn't be able to leave it behind, and yet staying with him isn't really an option either. Have you never had something you were unable to get out of your system completely? Remaining unrequited is all I can do."

 "’Tis up to you, but if watching it is driving me crazy, I can't imagine what it must be like for you."

 "I...thanks, I think."

 We ended up reading quietly together for a while. I picked up some adventure book written for children, smiling as I leafed through it. That was where everyone else found us when they returned from their various pastimes. Teagan joined us briefly. Eamon was awake, and was slowly being brought up to speed on the events that had gotten us here. He was still exhausted and was (understandably) devastated about Connor, and didn't feel well enough to face everyone immediately; Teagan hoped he would come down the following day, so we could plan before we left Redcliffe. The rest of us ate supper together and then retired early.

 Solona remained quiet and aloof, her expression revealing nothing. She just watched everything, giving the impression of filing it away for future examination. She had yet to decide whether to join the Grey Wardens, and I supposed that left her somehow feeling distant from our little group.

 I knew I wasn't ready to sleep, and Leliana had gone off for a walk or something, so I wandered. I didn't want to run into Theron, although I knew at some point I was going to have to deal with him, and finally decided to go track down Aedan and see if he wanted to talk for a while. I found his room and knocked softly on the door.

 "Who is it?" His voice sounded strained; I wondered if he was upset.

 "It's me. Sierra. Can I come in?"

 "No! Uh, one second."

 I heard rustling and what might have been whispering, and after a minute, the door opened a crack. Aedan was shirtless, looking slightly...rumpled. I raised one eyebrow.

 "Everything okay? What's wrong?"

 "Nothing, nothing. I was just bored. Thought I'd see if you wanted to chat. But I can see you're...busy." His chest was strategically blocking my sight into the room, and I thought I could guess why. I smirked and waggled my eyebrows at him suggestively. "We can talk tomorrow."

 "You sure? If you need something..." His face was crimson.

 "No, I'm good. Goodnight, Aedan."

 The door closed, and I whispered to myself. “Goodnight, Zev.”

 Unsure what to do with myself, I found myself staring at Alistair's door. I was about to slink away when I heard footsteps down the hall and looked left to see him approaching. Great, now I look like I've been lurking outside his door.

 "Sierra?"

 "Hey. I, um, thought maybe we could practice? I'm bored and not tired yet."

 He nodded agreeably. "Come on in."

 His room was small and neat, and he offered me the only chair then settled himself cross-legged on the bed.

 "So what would you do at home if you were bored?"

 "Often? Play this...performance."

 "More than once?"

 "Well, yeah...it was possible to make different decisions and change the story. Like, for example, instead of going to the Circle for help with Connor, we could also have allowed Jowan to perform a blood magic ritual that would have rescued him at the cost of Isolde's life. Or we could have helped Greagoir obtain and carry out the Right of Annulment instead of trying to save the mages. It made it interesting to try more than once."

 "I can't help but find the whole thing entirely creepy."

 "Me too, now that I know it's real. It would be sort of like...writing a book you thought was about imaginary characters, only to wake up one morning and find yourself in the middle of it."

 "You know, most people would probably have curled up into a ball and waited to die, doubting their sanity the whole time."

 "Don't think I didn't consider it. But I decided that if I wasn't insane, doing nothing was going to get me - and everyone else - in trouble so it didn't cost me anything to assume it was real." He smiled at me. "Besides. I woke up in really uncomfortable places, for the most part. If I'd been somewhere with a feather bed I might have been more inclined to wallow in self-pity."

 He laughed. "So you're a 'fair-weather' omnipotent companion?" I laughed too.

 We chatted for a while longer until I caught myself yawning.

 "You know, it seems I'm not going to be of any use practicing. I suppose I might as well go to bed after all."

 "Goodnight Sierra. Thanks for the talk."

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Eight: The “Plan”

 The next morning, we heard that Eamon would be meeting with everyone after lunch. So I donned my armour and went down to the practice yard, and spent the morning impressing Wayne with how much I had learned. He grudgingly admitted that I wouldn't be completely useless in a fight, and might even have a chance of defending myself. It was high praise coming from him.

 I had a quick bath before lunch and then ate in a rush, eager to finally meet Eamon and figure out The Plan. And I was curious to see whether the fans who thought he was an opportunistic jerk or those who thought he was a nice guy who lacked tact dealing with suboptimal circumstances were correct. Everyone else seemed to be feeling the same anticipation; we were all nervous energy and forced joviality as we waited in the by=now familiar library. Solona was absent, as was Jowan, and I was sure that was by design.

 Teagan helped Eamon in, and we all stood and bowed slightly as the shuffling, exhausted looking Arl entered and was seated. Theron shook his hand and clapped him gently on the shoulder, and Tomas, Alistair, and Aedan all shook hands as well. Then he turned to those of us he hadn't met, and Teagan performed introductions.

 "Wynne, mage of the Fereldan Circle. Shale, a golem, obviously. Zevran, Antivan Crow. Leliana, lay sister of the Chantry. Morrigan, mage from the Korcari Wilds. Sten of the Beresaad. And...Sierra."

 Eamon nodded at us as our names were called, and 'Your Grace' was muttered by each of us in turn. Studying Eamon, it was clear the poison had taken its toll on him, but there was raw intelligence behind his eyes, and I could tell he would remember every word spoken. He’d obviously been warned about our eclectic group – he didn’t even blink when a golem and a Qunari were introduced.

 His voice was slightly hoarse from disuse, and he stated that he'd heard Teagan's version of events, but wanted to hear ours. Theron, Tomas, and Aedan all started talking at once, to everyone's amusement, and I watched Eamon's eyes widen as, with a glance, Theron and Tomas both allowed Aedan to talk. We all know who our leader is, rank and years be damned. I grinned. I noticed he conspicuously left out any details regarding my templar abilities, and I found that interesting. Maybe he doesn't entirely trust Eamon either? He referred to me as his sister, without explaining that at all, and I almost giggled as Alistair’s and Eamon’s eyebrows tried to climb into their hairlines. Eamon asked a number of expected questions about me, and seemed vaguely unsatisfied with the answers as it was obvious Aedan was side-stepping some of the pertinent information, but I knew that I didn't have anything personal to go on to convince him. I decided to keep quiet and let Aedan field the questions as much as possible.

 Finally we were up to date, and then Tomas cut in with what he’d discovered in Denerim. Eamon listened carefully, interrupting only a couple of times for clarification. Finally, he turned to me.

 “Well, my Lady-“

 “Just Sierra, Your Grace. Please.”

 “Sierra then. You have managed a considerable feat – convincing my brother, Duncan, and King Cailan of your origin and sincerity. I am impressed.”

 “You mean skeptical, not impressed, Your Grace. It’s okay. I understand. It’s sort of an insane story, isn’t it? It’s true, none-the-less.”

 Teagan cut in. “It’s hard not to believe when you see her disappear into thin air right in front of you.”

 “Or predict exactly who and what we’ll be fighting, where a deactivated golem is hiding and the correct activation phrase, and how to find the location of the Ashes which cured you, Your Grace.” Aedan jumped in. I smiled at him and Teagan both.

 “So how about this then: what happens next?”

 “Well, I can’t exactly say. I mean, I’ve changed events already. Between Tomas and Theron, and the fact that it should have taken at least a month more to get the Ashes and bring them back…I know roughly what challenges we will face as we try to gather allies for the battle against the Archdemon, but as for what will happen with the human politics in Ferelden, or when the final battle might be, I’d say that’s all up in the air.”

 “So you’re saying your knowledge is useless to us.” Everyone in the room looked a little irritated, but I held up my hand to forestall the peanut gallery.

 “No, your Grace. I’m saying that we have free will, and we can yet decide our fate to some extent. If I’ve proven anything by coming here, it’s that things can change. My knowledge just gives us some idea of how we may wish to go about making those changes.”

 “Cailan has suggested we just march on Denerim and prove he still lives, and that will be Loghain’s downfall. I’ve half a mind to go along with it, really, but I know Duncan is very much against it, as is Teagan, both because of you. Why?”

 “Well, Your Grace, I am only speculating, but here are my thoughts. Loghain has already committed treason and tried to get Cailan killed, blaming it on the Grey Wardens. He’s afraid of you, and already tried to have you murdered as well. Whatever his reasons, his only hope of holding onto his power – and his life – is if Cailan doesn’t survive to tell the truth. He has the manpower to have the roads watched; if there was any whisper of Cailan’s survival, he could outnumber us and slaughter us all, strengthening his own position in the Landsmeet by claiming you rebelled against his lawful authority. You’re the only one with the clout to defeat him, since Fergus is still missing; with you dead, and Cailan as well, there would be no one to fight him. The way I reasoned it through, if we take the direct route to confront him, we’re just going to end up as corpses in a field somewhere to feed the crows.”

 “So what would you suggest?”

 “Well, I don’t know for sure. Aedan is our leader and I think those decisions are best left up to him and Tomas, as well as Theron and yourself. Teagan also mentioned he had an idea, which I’d be thrilled to hear.” Eamon scowled, I wasn’t sure whether at me directly or in response to Teagan’s plan. Aedan spoke up.

 “Yes, Teagan, I‘d also like to hear your plan.”

 Teagan looked nervously at his brother. “I’m not sure it’s such a good idea, really,” he demurred. Eamon looked like he’d been sucking on a lemon.

 “Tell us anyway, my Lord?” I asked. “Even if it isn’t a workable plan, maybe it will stimulate someone else’s thoughts.”

 “Well, I was thinking that if …Theron hadn’t survived, we would be having a discussion about putting Alistair on the throne.” Alistair and Theron both objected, but Teagan just spoke over their bluster. “We would call a Landsmeet, travel to Denerim, try to prove Loghain’s treachery to the assembled nobles, and then put Alistair forward as the legitimate heir. What if we do that…go through it as if nothing had changed, but at last minute, once those who would betray us are out in the open, reveal Theron instead of Alistair? If Loghain doesn't know about Theron, he won't plan to ambush us, it would seem. He can go into the Landsmeet wearing a helm with no one the wiser."

 We all stopped and stared at Teagan, thinking furiously. It would get Theron into Denerim safely, and allow him to see what Loghain and Anora had done; it would ensure all the nobles of Ferelden saw Theron alive before Loghain had a chance to react. It put Alistair's parentage out there, something I knew he wouldn't want, and I could see his face scrunch slightly as he thought about it. Overall, though, I knew he'd do what was best for Ferelden and this was far better than any plan I could come up with.

 "Teagan, you're a genius!" Tomas and Aedan appeared to agree with me, nodding heartily.

 Teagan looked abashed, while Theron and Eamon both looked enraged. They both started sputtering about deception and dishonour, but after a couple of moments Aedan interrupted them.

 "Are you two quite finished? Look, honour and integrity are all fine and dandy, but in this case all they are going to net us is a swift funeral. I'd rather be alive and get yelled at for playing a trick than honourable and dead. If one of you has a better plan, I'm happy to hear it." That shut them up, and though both were still red-faced and obviously angry, they didn't respond.

 "Now the question is do we do that now, or wait until we have secured the alliances of the elves and dwarves?"

 Theron, of course, wanted to call the Landsmeet immediately. Aedan and Alistair wanted to see to the treaties first. Eamon encouraged them, disagreeing with Theron, and I watched him with narrowed eyes until I realised - he was hoping to buy himself time to come up with a different plan. Which was fine with me - if he could find one that worked and didn't get us killed, I would be thrilled - as long as he kept his mouth shut about Theron in the meantime.

 In the end, we decided to wait for the treaties. Everyone promised to keep the secret of Theron's existence. He was disgusted at being left behind in Redcliffe yet again, but no one seemed too sympathetic. I wondered how long it would take before he finally understood that he had to do what was best for Ferelden, not just what was the most fun for him. Maybe being around Eamon for a while would be good for him.

 After some discussion, we decided to do a huge circle - from Redcliffe to Flemeth's, then to the Brecilian Forest for the Dalish, then into Denerim. Once done there, we would head to Soldier's Peak (apparently Duncan had been in contact with Levi Dryden and arranged for us to meet him at the pass leading to the old fortress), over to Orzammar, and finally back to Redcliffe. In travel time alone, that would be twelve weeks, give or take. So assuming we ended up spending a week with the Dalish, another in Denerim, one in Soldier's Peak, and at least two weeks in Orzammar, that would be more than four months all told. And then I did the math and realised - with the exception of a day or two every couple of weeks, I'd been in Ferelden for more than two months already. In two months, it already felt more like home than mine ever had.

 Once the meeting was over, Tomas kept Aedan, Alistair, and I back. He informed us that he had secured Solona’s agreement to become a Grey Warden, but that because we couldn’t do the Joining until we found Denerim’s supply of Archdemon blood, she wouldn’t be travelling with us. Aedan objected, but Tomas put his foot down.

 “Your…companions, know far too many of the Grey Warden secrets as it is.” His gaze flickered to Morrigan as he spoke, but the witch seemed intent on her own destination as she hurried out. “I won’t have Solona learning the truth and trying to flee. She’s a recruit now, but there’s no reason for her to be terrified of what will happen for the months until her Joining, if she overhears something she shouldn’t. She can stay here and keep Jowan company until she can undergo the ritual.”

 I spoke. “Are we going to recruit Jowan?” Alistair glanced at me, surprised and looking annoyed, but Tomas just looked thoughtful.

 “I don’t know. I would…worry, about his Joining.”

 I nodded. Jowan certainly wasn’t the strongest in willpower – or talent – as far as I’d seen. I had to wonder if he’d survive the Joining, though the thought that the alternative was for him to be made Tranquil gave me pause. If it was me, I’d rather risk the Joining. When I said as much, Tomas gave me a shrewd look, but nodded thoughtfully. I did notice that no decisions seemed to have been made about the mage’s fate so far, despite Eamon’s recovery.

 I headed up to the room I shared with Leli and went to sleep. The next morning, Tomas left to go scouting, and the rest of us took our leave of Theron, Eamon, Solona, Jowan, and Teagan. I was aware that Eamon and Teagan had been awake well into the night talking with Aedan and Tomas, and they all looked a bit haggard.

 Our pace wasn't as quick as normal, although I wondered if our destination - Flemeth's - had as much to do with it as fatigue. I certainly wasn't looking forward to trying to kill a several-hundred-year-old abomination. No matter how much she deserved it. And the concept that she'd only die temporarily - well, that wasn't comfortable either. Would she hold a grudge?

 Instead of following the roads, we set out through the forest leading into the Korcari Wilds. Aedan claimed to be able to navigate to Flemeth's, though even Morrigan said she didn't know how to find it from this direction. Aedan was convinced it would shave four days off of our trip. I appreciated his sense of haste, but definitely did not appreciate having to carry my own pack again - Bodahn's wagon couldn't follow this way, and he agreed to wait for us on the road east of Lothering. Great, three weeks of walking with a pack on.

 Aedan carried Morrigan's pack as she was currently flying overhead; to my surprise, without a word, Alistair gathered up mine and Leliana's and headed off after Aedan. Leli and I shared smiles, and followed behind him. I might be angry with him, but I can't deny he's a gentleman. The going was relatively easy - the thick forest meant little direct light hit the ground so the undergrowth was thin; I knew that wouldn't last, given what the Korcari Wilds were like.

 Over the course of a week, we seemed to be traveling progressively downhill, and the ground became swampier, requiring us to divert a few times as we came upon ponds of green, thick sludge that no one trusted to walk through. The walking was tough, but the nights were worse. Everyone was jumpy, expecting darkspawn to attack at any point; no one talked much, and even Leliana didn't sing. Aedan didn't want us making campfires unless we could be sure they were well-hidden, so we ate dried bread and jerky, relying on Wynne's magic to heat water for tea and porridge.

 The only thing to lighten everyone's mood was the playful banter that still went on between Aedan and Alistair. The two men bickered like brothers, and it was hilarious to listen to. On about the third day into the swamp, Alistair began questioning Aedan's directions. He claimed to have seen the same tree before, accusing Aedan of leading us in circles. I could see he wasn't serious, just enjoying getting a rise out of Aedan; Wynne, Leliana and I chuckled together as we followed behind the two Grey Wardens.

 When the first darkspawn ambush came, we were completely prepared. We fought off a large group without too much trouble - I almost laughed as I saw Shale launch a genlock into a group of archers instead of the boulders she normally threw. I stayed out of the fighting completely, earning a smile from Wynne. Afterwards, Aedan and Zevran were wandering through the darkspawn corpses making sure they were all truly dead, slitting a throat here or there for good measure. All of a sudden there was a high-pitched sound, and black shadows jumped out from nowhere. Shrieks – nasty, stealthy, sharp - darkspawn equivalents of Aedan. Great.

 We were caught unawares, everyone's defenses down because we thought the fight was over, and I guessed that the Grey Wardens' senses were overwhelmed by the corpses around us. A long, black claw flickered faster than I could watch, and Zevran let out a scream and went down, hands cupping a bloody facial wound. Aedan recovered and threw a blade, which pierced through the shriek's arm, and followed it up with a slash and stab that dropped the amorphous shadow to the ground. Alistair took down another with his shield, and Sten shattered one that Morrigan had frozen solid. Panting, we were finally safe, and Aedan, Wynne and I rushed to Zevran's side.

 He was alive, though extremely bloody, and had a gash running from his forehead, barely skipping his eye, continuing down his cheek and then deeply into the flesh of his right pectoral. He was awake, and kept trying to talk, while Aedan shushed him and I pulled out the bottle of strong alcohol we all kept for such occasions.

 "Sorry Zev," I muttered, and Aedan put the handle of his dagger between Zevran's teeth. I poured the alcohol carefully into the long wound track, especially into the deeper part on his chest, while Wynne held the gaping edges apart to allow it to do its work. Zevran screamed, the sound louder and more painful than the shrieks, and I shuddered but kept pouring. He finally passed out, and I had to wonder how much pain would be required to make a Crow pass out. We all took a deep breath of relief as we finished. Wynne probed the wound with a finger, making sure nothing was left inside, and then started chanting.

 Watching healing still fascinated me. The skin knit together - by magic! - looking like someone had hit the slow rewind button on a DVD recording of the initial injury. By the time she'd healed together his chest, she was panting and pale. I forestalled her next attempt on his face, and pulled out a poultice, carefully applying the red liquid to the skin itself in the deeper sections, dabbing at it with a linen cloth in the shallower parts. The laceration closed, but left a pale scar across his forehead and cheek. Wynne allowed herself to be led away by Leliana, and Aedan and I were left sitting beside the former Crow, each of us gripping one of his hands.

 Aedan's face was tender, and I tried not to stare. I had wondered what was going on between the two rogues, but seeing that soft, wistful look on my brother's face, I knew: what had been happening was that Aedan was falling in love. I wondered if he knew. I hoped Zevran would wake and see his face like this - I didn't think he'd believe it otherwise. I glanced around, checking that no one else was looking; I knew Aedan wouldn't want to be seen being vulnerable. Alistair was shooting glances at me, but everyone else was busy; Wynne was resting against a boulder, eyes closed. I rolled my eyes at Alistair, and he flushed slightly, returning to repacking his gear. After a few minutes, Zevran stirred. I met Aedan's gaze to ensure he was okay, and then left them to have some alone time.

 I vaguely contemplated cuffing Alistair on the back of the head for the looks he'd been giving me, but managed to resist. Probably thinks I’m worried about having a threesome later. I checked on Wynne, who claimed to be feeling well. I dug through my pack until I found some not completely rock hard bread and some jerky - God I was getting sick of jerky - and distributed it to the rest of the group who were scavenging usable items off the dead darkspawn. Zev was awake by the time I made it back to him and Aedan, and he accepted a double portion as his stomach growled loudly.

 "Thank you, Sierra."

 "Huh? For what, Zev?"

 "Aiding me with my injury. I hear you were the unfortunate soul to pour the alcohol into the wound."

 "Well, honestly I'd do that for anyone, but you're welcome. And you know, sorry about that."

 "It had to be done. Sadly I hear I am left disfigured."

 I laughed. "Don't worry Zevran. Chicks dig scars."

 His confused expression set me giggling, and I decided not to explain. I offered him the tiny compact I carried so he could examine himself in the mirror. He tsk'd at the image, but didn't seem too concerned. Maybe Aedan told him scars were sexy. I giggled again and then offered a hand to haul the elf up. We got ready to keep traveling.

 When we camped that night, we decided that Morrigan should go no further towards Flemeth's. If Aedan was correct, we were three days from her hut, and we worried that she'd be aware of our approach. We also decided - and I agreed - that I should stay with her. Flemeth didn't know about me, and keeping my existence a secret could eventually grant us an unforeseen advantage. That said, I was disappointed not to go - I wanted to see her, silly as that was, but I also hoped she'd know something about who I was or how I'd gotten to Thedas. I convinced Aedan that they had to carry my spare armour and as much of the rest of my stuff as I could live without, in case I disappeared and reappeared with them.

 Morrigan and I were to circle around north and meet them on the opposite side of Ostagar, closer to where Bodahn should be waiting. Six days alone with Morrigan. What was I thinking? I should have stayed with the wagon. I was seriously concerned about my ability to stay in Thedas for six more days, when I realised I'd already been in Thedas for twenty consecutive days. My new record. It occurred to me that the times I spent in Thedas had been getting longer, while the returns to Earth had been getting shorter; I wondered what that meant. I had to admit that it didn’t bother me as I thought it should.

 Morrigan and I walked mostly in silence. I had a light pack to carry, but as I'd sent most of my stuff with Aedan it wasn't too cumbersome. Morrigan didn't want to fly lest Flemeth recognise her bird form, so she stayed on the ground. I was glad - even as poor company as Morrigan could be at times, it was better than walking alone. I worried we would run into another band of darkspawn, but she thought she could navigate us around them when there weren't two Tainted Grey Wardens with us to draw their attention.

 We made good time and even Morrigan was pleased - she thought we would end up at our rendezvous point in four days, not six. I was somewhat irritated that she had thought I would slow her that much, but had to admit she wasn't without reason. Feeble. I hated it. I was happy to prove her wrong.

 Every discussion I managed to pull Morrigan into felt like a victory. We talked about nothing important, but even getting her to comment on the weather (cold and damp, but not raining, fortunately) was a major effort most of the time. I asked if she had any way of telling where in the Wilds Fergus Cousland might have been - I recalled that he was nursed back to health by some of the Chasind - but she indicated there were dozens of tribes that moved around, and literally hundreds of hidden campsites where they could be at any given point. I gave up on my thought of finding Fergus with a sigh. I knew he'd come to Denerim once he was able.

 The four days passed reasonably well; setting up camp and having to wait around for two more was torture. I was worried about the rest of the group, awkward with the long silences between Morrigan and I, and constantly expecting to disappear and get dragged back to Earth. Traveling light meant I shared a tent with Morrigan, and somehow even though one of us was awake on watch at all times, being in the same tent allowed me to sleep.

 I tried practicing my templar abilities, but it was difficult without Wynne to practice on and Alistair to guide me. I didn't want to ask Morrigan for help - she wasn't the trusting type – but after a while she came over and offered to at least visualise spells and hold the mana so I could practice seeing it. It was interesting, I realised - the magic looked different when she used it than when Wynne did. I wondered if each mage was different, or if it was the difference between a Circle mage and an apostate. Or a healer compared to a shapechanger. I'd have to ask Alistair. And pay more attention next time we ran into an Emissary.

 By the evening of the sixth day, when they hadn't showed up, I had to concentrate to avoid panicking. I was almost starting to hope I'd disappear and reappear with them, just so I'd know that Aedan and Alistair were safe. Morrigan scoffed at me, reminding me the six days hadn't accounted for time to chat and fight with Flemeth or rest afterwards. It didn't help. Morrigan offered to take first watch, but I knew I wouldn't sleep anyway so I waved her off. I stayed up, by the fire, and for the first time wished I knew how to knit. Or whittle. Anything to keep my hands busy! At home I would doodle while thinking; I kept a notepad in virtually every drawer with a million different pens so I could doodle whenever I needed. With paper the way it was here...I was going to need something else.

 I traded watch with Morrigan sometime in the night and settled down to try to get some sleep. Every time I managed to doze off, I was assailed by images - Aedan and Alistair, dead or maimed; me, alone, in Thedas, forever. Because that would just be my luck - the minute they die is the minute I'll finally be stuck in Thedas permanently. I kept waking, gasping and shivering, and finally gave it up as a bad job. I crawled back out of the tent well before dawn. To Morrigan's credit, she didn't say a word, just sat beside me, shoulder-to-shoulder, and let me brood. She may not have understood why I was the way I was, but she was prepared to support me anyway. I contemplated hugging her. I didn't.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Nine: Love and War

 In the morning I was, unsurprisingly, exhausted. Morrigan and I packed up, just in case, but stayed put. I ended up dozing by the fire, not sleeping deeply enough to repeat the dreams from the night before. I had just shut my eyes, it seemed, when Morrigan was shaking me, one hand clamped over my mouth. I opened my eyes and saw her face, pale with fear. She hissed quietly in my ear.

 "Darkspawn. Scouting party, big one. Need to move."

 I nodded understanding, sitting up quickly but carefully, climbing to my feet, unsheathing my daggers as I followed the witch into the woods. I tried to step quietly, but it had never been my strong suit. I winced at every snap of branches underfoot. Morrigan led me away from the fire for a bit, then bade me climb a tree. She then changed into a bird and flew back towards our camp. I could hear vague sounds off in the distance, as I clung to the tree I was in. I assumed she must have changed into human form, made enough noise to draw the scouting party off, and then changed again to avoid capture. She flew back to me a few minutes later, landing in the tree nearby.

 "Everything okay?" I whispered nervously.

 Bird-Morrigan hopped around a little and cheeped softly.

 "Right. I'm an idiot. I'm going to assume it's a yes, and stop asking dumb questions. Hop around some more or something if I'm assuming incorrectly." I could have sworn that bird face was grinning.

 After a bit she took off and flew away again, I assumed to ensure that they hadn't come any closer. I waited, and waited, and waited. I wondered just how long I would stay stranded in the damn tree before climbing down and going to check on things myself. A long time, if I was honest with myself. I'm no hero.

 I was saved from having to contemplate it too much further by crashing noises down below. I peered down and saw, to my vast relief, Alistair hacking his way through some dense underbrush with his sword, the rest of the group following in the path he'd cleared. Morrigan landed in the tree again beside me.

 "Thank you, Morrigan." I whispered so the rest of the group wouldn't hear.

 I climbed down the tree like it was on fire and threw myself at Aedan, clinging around his neck, voice tight as I tried not to cry. He caught me and hugged me, seeming to understand.

 "Aedan, I swear to God if you ever scare me like that again..."

 "I know, I know. I knew when we camped last night you'd be beside yourself that we hadn't joined you. I'm sorry Sierra, but we were so tired...there just was no way for us to have come any faster. It's okay."

 "Never again, okay? We stay together. Please?" He hugged me tighter and I felt him nod.

 I finally let go, still slightly shaky. I turned and hugged Leliana, Zevran, and Wynne as well, smiling at Sten and earning myself a smirk, and then spotted Alistair. I was still awkward around him, still somewhat angry, but with Aedan's voice inside my head telling me that I avoided him, I couldn't not. I pulled Alistair into a hug, and enjoyed being held a little too much. I even gave Prince a little cuddle, and he licked my face. Shale I ignored, as usual.

 "So?"

 "It's done." Ding, dong, the witch is dead. Sometimes you are so inappropriate, Sierra!

 Everyone felt able to travel a bit further, and we decided with a large scouting party around somewhere, moving was a smart plan. We decided to wait to repack our gear, so I walked easily with just my light pack. By the time we camped, Aedan figured we were probably another day from finding Bodahn on the road. We didn't spar, we didn't practice; we all sat, near each other, even Morrigan in our midst, and took solace from each other’s company. Clinging to Aedan's hand, inside our little tent, I felt the best I had in ages.

 *******

 I woke back in hospital again. My personal inventory was unchanged - no new tubes, no monitors. I was sharing a room with an elderly woman who was fast asleep in the dim light of early morning. I sat up, feeling only marginally sore and definitely not weak. It occurred to me that this had been my longest streak yet in Thedas, but I still experienced none of the atrophy the doctor had mentioned previously. I collected my clothes, personal supplies, and a towel and set off in search of a shower. I didn't run into anyone in the hallway, and just wandered about, feeling a bit like I'd been trapped inside 'The Twilight Zone' or something, but eventually found a room that appeared to be for patient use, that indeed sported a shower head. I locked myself in, showered, dressed, and as I leaned over to tie my boots, was just able to reach up and pull the help cord that was hanging from the wall as the dizziness hit and I pitched forward onto the wet tile floor.

 ********

 I woke in the same place I must have disappeared from. My bedroll was uncomfortable – I was laying on my armour, which I’d gone to sleep in – but otherwise it would appear as though I hadn’t moved. The bedroll next to mine was empty – Aedan was awake, somewhere. It was light out, and I wondered why everyone hadn’t packed up to leave yet. I could hear faint murmuring in the distance, and I sat up, changed into my armour, and headed out to find the source of the sound.

 I found Leliana, Wynne, Morrigan, Sten, Prince, Zevran, and Shale all relaxing in a clearing enjoying the sun. They chatted amongst themselves, and that had been the source of the noise I’d heard. They all stopped when they saw me, and then Leliana cracked up into a laugh. Zevran smirked and Wynne chuckled; even Morrigan and Sten looked amused. Prince came bounding over to lick my hand and promptly sat on my boot, as usual. I was bewildered.

 “What? And where are the Grey Wardens?”

 Leliana tried to stop laughing, succeeding only for a few words at a time, until Zevran finally took over.

 “Aedan is over there, by the stream.” He pointed to the south. “Alistair is over there, last I checked trying to chop down a tree with his bare hands. We thought it best to separate them before someone got hurt.”

 “Huh?” I’m always so articulate.

 Zevran actually giggled. “They had a, shall we say, difference of opinion about what to do when they woke to find you gone. Then each talked the other into changing their opinions. Much shouting ensued before we sent them off to have a chance to cool down.”

 Oh God. “Tell me.”

 “Initially Aedan was planning for us to all pack up and keep moving. Alistair refused, saying we could wait a day or two until you returned. They argued for a while, and suddenly they were each arguing the opposite side. Alistair admitted we should go and Aedan refused. That’s when the shouting really started.”

 I rolled my eyes, cheeks flushing slightly. Alistair wanted to stay? For me? “Alright, give me a minute to get them sorted. Would you guys pack up for me?”

 They nodded, and I headed in the direction Aedan had gone, following the sound of running water. I found him sitting on the bed of a small stream, eyes closed, boots off and feet in the water. He jumped as I sank down beside him.

 “You’re an idiot, you know that, right?”

 He nodded, opening his eyes. His expression was that of someone who’d been through hell. I twisted, putting my arms around his shoulders, and pulled him into an awkward embrace. He rested his head on my shoulder and I felt him shudder.

 “I’m fine, Aedan. Nothing is going to happen to me. If anything, I’m probably safer there than here!”

 I could feel him nod but he didn’t pull away.

 “I don’t want to be left here alone. I don’t think I could do this if you disappeared and didn’t come back.”

 “You could, and you would. You’re stronger than that! And you’re not alone. You have Alistair, Leli, Wynne… Zevran. They wouldn’t let you be alone. We are all a family now, okay?”

 He moved to grab me in his arms. “I love you, dear sister.”

 “And I you, brother. Now put your boots on. I’ve got to go get Alistair, and we’ve got some walking to do. The werewolves aren’t going to cure themselves.”

 I found Alistair slumped on the ground near a large tree whose trunk had been badly abused, as Zevran had warned me. From the shattered branches scattered around, he had tried to use deadfall as an axe.

 “If you really needed wood so badly, there’s a hatchet in my pack, Alistair. This isn’t the most efficient way to chop down a tree.”

 He jumped up when he heard my voice, spinning towards me and crossing the clearing in a couple of huge leaps. He grabbed me and spun me once, dragging an indignant, startled shriek from my lips before he put me down and backed away hastily, cheeks flaming red.

 “I’m, uh, glad you’re back, Sierra. I really hate it when you disappear like that.”

 “You’re not the only one!” I grinned. “Now will you pull yourself together and come back to camp? We should get going.”

 Back at camp, Aedan and Alistair avoided eye contact with each other awkwardly. Everyone was standing, staring back and forth, no one knowing what to say. I finally sighed.

 “Alright. So. In front of everyone, so there’s no confusion next time. If and when I disappear again, you are all to keep going, okay?” I waved my hand impatiently when both Aedan and Alistair tried to object. “Both of you shut it. I will find you when I get back. The important thing is that you two end this Blight. Standing around a campsite arguing about it isn’t going to help.”

 They both flushed, looking sheepish. I pinned them both with stares until they relented and agreed, one after the other.

 “Now shake hands and make up.”

 Aedan shot me a dirty look. Alistair’s face got even redder. Neither man made a move.

 “I mean it! Shake hands and make up, or I swear to God I will smite both of you into oblivion. We don’t have all day!”

 This triggered a laugh from the peanut gallery watching, and finally I saw cracks form in both Wardens’ demeanours. Aedan finally chuckled and held out his hand, and Alistair surged forward to shake it. They grinned at each other, and Alistair clapped Aedan on the back as they headed towards where everyone else was packed and ready to go.

 “She’s scary. I think we should do as she says.”

 Aedan agreed, a little too quickly. “Too right. I’ll watch your back if you watch mine.”

 I stuck my tongue out at both of them in my usual mature fashion.

 After another two days of walking, we met up with Bodahn, all of us happy to be able to tuck our possessions into his cart. Except me, since I hadn’t carried mine the entire time. It was sweet of Alistair, but I was starting to feel really self-conscious about the whole thing. How will I ever get better stamina and strength if no one lets me try? I lightened my pack, but continued carrying it just to make a point. Alistair gave me a look, but I ignored it and kept walking.

 We were a full two weeks of walking from where we expected to pick up traces of the Dalish. We ran into a few ambushes – bandits once, darkspawn a couple of times – as well as a group of Loghain’s men fighting with some of the local Bann’s men. We sided with the Bann’s men, and Loghain’s were driven off. Everyone seemed relieved we didn’t have to kill them all. We took the opportunity to spread the truth of Loghain abandoning the King and Grey Wardens at Ostagar a little further. We even ran into a group of Qunari mercenaries – Tal Vashoth, I remembered, and Sten seemed impressed that I knew the word. They seemed shocked when they saw we had a Qunari with us, and barely even tried to defend themselves. Qunari are weird, Tal Vashoth or not.

 Aedan started acting oddly part way through the journey. At first only I noticed it, but he was becoming somewhat distractible and jumpy. And then there were the times I woke in the night to find myself in an empty tent, and he wasn’t out by the fire, either. It didn’t take much for me to figure what he was doing. I bet my boots Zevran’s tent is empty too! No one else noticed initially, but then I started seeing Wynne and Leliana giving Aedan strange looks. I finally pulled him aside one evening.

 “Hey, Aedan….”

 “Yes?”

 “I…look. You’ve been acting kind of odd lately. I know why. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset by it or anything. But I think you need to decide if you’re going to be honest about it in public. If not, you need to learn to hide it better.”

 “What are you talking about?”

 “Aedan. Really?”

 “But…how did you…”

 “Because you’re not very good at sneaking around? Sometimes I wake in the night and you’re not in our tent. You didn’t think I’d notice?”

 “Does everyone know?”

 “Don’t think so. But they’re going to figure it out. You’ve been distracted lately. You stare at Zev – a lot. Someone is going to put two and two together. My advice? Either just tell everyone, or learn to be a better actor. Otherwise you’re going to get caught with your pants down and it’ll be awkward for everyone.”

 “It doesn’t bother you?”

 “Why would it? You know I like him. And you’re a big boy now, you can choose who to be with.”

 “But…I thought you said that back home, some people frown on two men….”

 “Yep. I also said I thought it was stupid. What difference does it make to me whether my brother has a wife or a husband? If you’re happy, I am.”

 “I love you, Sierra.” He hugged me. “I’m not…quite ready to admit to it yet, not to everyone. Will you help me hide it better?”

 “Of course, brother dearest.”

 After that, Aedan got better at paying attention again. I covered for his absence from our tent the once or twice anyone noticed.

 One day Zevran approached me after dinner when I was sitting off a little ways, just quietly watching everyone in camp.

 "So, cara mia, it has been more than a month, yes? Since our deal?"

 "Oh, Zev. Really? Are you that keen to be self-destructive? I thought you decided you liked your life."

 "Oh, but I do, bella donna. What has that to do with anything?"

 "Well, I told you that if you asked me to have sex with you, I'd tell you why I wouldn't. I know you're not so foolish as to misunderstand how Aedan will react if you do such a thing." He jumped slightly and I grinned. "I'm not completely oblivious, Zev."

 "Ah, yes. Although...the conversation we had when I first met you implied that you did not know who would end up in a tent with whom, yes?"

 "True. The performance couldn't account for free will, I guess."

 "So you couldn't have known how things would be, with Aedan, when we discussed this."

 "Nope."

 "Which means there are other reasons for you to want to decline all..." he gave an arrogant hip thrust and gestured in his own general direction, "this. Yes?" I couldn't help but giggle, half-breathless with amusement. "I was just wondering...if you would tell me why. Even if I don't ask you to share a tent."

 "Oh, dear, the Great Zevran is feeling a little bit self-conscious? His ego cannot take an unexplained refusal to give in to temptation?"

 "Aha, so you do admit to feeling the temptation, then." He covered it well, but I could see the self-doubt behind his eyes.

 "Oh, Zev. Listen. You're a nice man, though you try not to show it sometimes. You're kind, and generally well-meaning when given any sort of choice. You're good looking, and I have no doubt are very talented in bed. Of course that's tempting!" He grinned, arrogance restored, and I laughed, but then my smile faltered a bit.

 "Let's do a little mental exercise, together, shall we? A game, if you will. I like to call this game 'what if'. It's fun to play in many situations. 'What if the sky were green, not blue? What if Maric hadn't died? What if Cailan survived the battle at Ostagar?'" He looked up, and I grinned. "I play this game a lot, as you can see. So let's play one together.

 "What if Sierra fell in love with Zevran? Because that is what it would be for me - I wouldn't be with someone I didn't love. And if you didn't love me, it wouldn't work either, so I'd have to assume you loved me too.”

 “Well, there’s our first problem. I don’t fall in love.”

 “Did you forget who you’re talking to? I know about Rinna, Zev. You’re as capable of love as the next person, and if you weren’t such a coward about it, you’d realise you’re already in love.” I stuck my tongue out for good measure, and Zev laughed, though his smile did not reach his eyes, I noted.

“Anyways. As I see it, at first, all is well. We travel with Aedan, we fight darkspawn. We kill Taliesen when he comes for you. We end the Blight. But then what, Zev? What happens after?"

 He looked at me speculatively. "We live happily ever after?"

 "Ri-ight. So...you're going to settle down with me, and what. Become a farmer?"

 "Well, no..."

 "What then. A merchant? A baker? No? So then, what? You become a self-employed assassin instead of a Crow? You know I'm not okay with that idea. You don't have to be an assassin anymore, and even if it doesn't bother you, you know how I would feel about it. Killing in self-defense makes me physically ill. Killing for money? Couldn't live with it."

 "And the other thing. We will face Taliesen, at some point. We will kill him. What do you think the Crows will do when he doesn't return? Do you think they'll just give up? I think they'll keep issuing contracts, keep trying to kill you for leaving them. And I doubt they'd have any qualms about using someone you love as a pawn, either as bait or to force your hand. I may be learning, but do you think I can defeat a Crow? Even the rawest apprentice could kill me. So you'd have to watch me, all day, every day, forever, and we'd either have to go on the run, which isn't a life I'd choose, or go to war with the Crows. And I'd be a liability in that sort of war. You would get killed trying to protect me, or I'd get killed by the Crows and you'd have to live with feeling like you failed me. And if, by some miracle, we won, Antiva would be destroyed by a power vacuum. So either something worse would step in, or you'd have to run the Crows, and we're back to me not being okay with that.

 "There's no happy ending for you and me, Zev."

 He was silent for a few minutes, and I watched his mask hide the thoughts that must have been going through his head.

 "I can't fault your logic." I nodded, relieved. "I'm impressed that you've thought that much about it, actually. You must have spent a lot of time finding reasons you cannot be with me. One might even think you had to work at it. I am flattered that you spent so much time trying to justify to yourself why it could not work. I hope it does not break your heart when I tell you that you and I were not meant to be, cara mia. I am sorry."

 I giggled, and his eyes flashed amusement.

 "As it turns out, I think I'll live. Besides, it would seem you have other...matters to occupy your mind. And your, um, hands. And things."

 He grinned. "And those other matters...might not be happy if I was to seduce their sister? More justifications. Please, bella donna, do not take it so hard."

 "I'll try. I'm sure with years of counselling, I'll get over it." We sat companionably for a few minutes, watching the rest of our group at camp talk and sit and eat. Alistair was cleaning his sword and shield, and I surreptitiously stared for a few moments before my gaze snapped back to Zevran. I watched his eyes follow Aedan, and saw Aedan stiffen as he felt Zevran's gaze on him. I smiled at the hungry look even his Crow mask couldn't hide. Zevran noticed and grinned back at me.

 "And who are your hands, and 'things', occupied with then, bella donna?"

 "Me? No one. You expect me to believe that you don't know every intimate secret about this group? If I was 'occupied', you'd be the first to know."

 "Ah, true. But I think your mind has not been as circumspect as the rest of you has." He shuffled over to sit beside me, looking where I was. "He is a wonderful specimen, I must admit. So naïve and awkwardly charming! And those shoulders, no?" I blushed and stammered, and he continued on, smirking. "Surely a future with him would not be so problematic for you, yes? You cannot still be holding a grudge. And he has not failed to notice you either, cara mia."

 "Zev! I'm not...He...no! We can't. Ask Aedan sometime, but I'm not having this discussion."

 "Tsk. So inhibited. It's not good for you, you know."

 I ignored him, and we sat quietly again; I closed my eyes, willing the flush in my cheeks to die down.

 "So I have to ask...if you see my future like this, why have you not tried to keep Aedan and me apart?"

 I looked at Zevran and smiled. "First of all, do you think that even if I tried, it would make the slightest bit of difference? I'm his sister, not his keeper." His grin widened. "Besides. The biggest objection I have to a future between me and you is that I think relationships require that the people involved be equals. And I don't mean in the 'I cook better than you' sort of things, I mean overall. You and I wouldn't be equals - I'd be a liability in your life that you would constantly have to protect. It would breed resentment for both of us. Aedan...is your equal. You could watch each other's backs. I think you could be good for each other, as long as you both commit to it. So the real question you need to ask is of yourself: are you committed to Aedan? Because if you aren't and you get him killed, I'll tell the Crows where you are myself."

 "Ah, cara mia, you may claim not to be a fighter, but I am much more worried about what you would do to me than the Crows."

 I laughed. "Good. But you didn't answer the question, amico mio."

 "Your Antivan is better than I would have expected, cara mia. Let's see if you can catch this one: io sono solo per lui."

 "Solo per lui?" Only for him? I met his gaze directly, demanding. His face softened, and I saw the real Zevran peeking out under the mask, insecurities and all. He nodded, serious and scared. "How do I say brother in Antivan?"

 "Mio fratello."

 "Right. Well, mio fratello, when were you going to get around to telling him?" Zev's face cleared in relief and he laughed.

 "Well, with a sister's blessing, how could I wait?"

 "Hang on. I'm going to need to find somewhere to sleep tonight, aren't I?"

 "Only if I'm lucky, cara mia. Only if I'm very, very lucky."

 "Hey, if you call me cara mia, what do you call Aedan?"

 "Amore mio." His grin was sly.

 "He has no idea what that means, does he."

 "Not so much, no."

 I laughed and hugged him gently. "Go tell him."

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty: Were? Where?

 I took over organising the tents when we camped after that, making sure that the one I shared with Aedan was near Zev’s, and both bordered the woods so they could sneak out together. It was cute. I contemplated trying to change tents again – Bodahn had found more canvas, we could do it – but I couldn’t think of a way to do it without arousing suspicion in everyone else. Both Aedan and Zevran were suddenly much more cheerful. I wasn’t sure whether it was knowing that I didn’t disapprove, or just that they were having more sex.

 The woods changed as we left the Korcari Wilds and headed into the Brecilian Forest. It was less swampy, greener, less foreboding. We had already discussed our strategy in dealing with the Dalish, and knew that their scouts could find us at any point, so we avoided talking about anything important. It was kind of fun, wandering through the woods. We chased off a few bears, but otherwise had nothing to worry about. We kept Zevran somewhere prominent, hoping they’d be less likely to shoot us if they saw him first. Aedan and Alistair huddled protectively around me, despite my insistence that they didn’t need to.

 A voice called out from the woods somewhere.

 “Turn back now, Shemlen, or face the consequences!” Startled, we all stopped walking, and were suddenly surrounded by two dozen angry-looking elves with bows drawn and pointed at us. They were all shorter and slighter than even Zevran, wearing armour in greens and browns that would blend into their surroundings.

 Aedan answered. “Hold, friend. We are Grey Wardens, and we need to speak with your Keeper Zathrian. We have information on the…sickness, currently afflicting several of your clan.”

 There was a whole bunch of chatter in Elven, which resolved into two voices, clearly arguing. Aedan glanced at me and I shook my head. No, I don’t know Elven. How could I possibly? Finally one of them turned to face us and spoke in the common tongue.

 “We do not tolerate outsiders, Shem. Either leave peacefully, or we will be forced to remove you. It’s up to you.”

 “As much as I hate to say it, friend, you need us right now. And you may have us outnumbered, but I have two mages, two Grey Wardens, an Antivan Crow, a Qunari warrior, the best archer in Ferelden, a mabari war dog, and a sodding golem. If we’re going to do this by force, we win. Now take me to Zathrian before the golem gets cranky.”

 I had to give Shale credit for looking cranky very, very well. Or very poorly, depending on which side you were on, I supposed. She stomped forward, the ground trembling beneath her feet, right up to the one who’d spoken. She turned to look at Aedan.

 “Is it certain it doesn’t want me to squish this soft creature? It would make such a refreshing crunching sound when it pops.”

 Several of the elves backed away, leaving their leader pale-faced and shaking.

 “We will take you to Zathrian.”

 “Good choice.”

 We followed the leader, but couldn’t fail to notice that his comrades didn’t lower their weapons, keeping them trained on us until Zathrian dismissed them. The Keeper was polite, on the surface, but clearly deeply suspicious of us. He seemed very, very tired, and I almost felt sorry for him. Until I remembered the werewolves.

 We had discussed our options, and no one was okay with us allowing the werewolves to slaughter the elves, but we were equally uncomfortable slaughtering the werewolves. Wrong had been done on both sides, but it began with Zathrian and his need for vengeance, and we had agreed that one way or the other, he needed to end it. Aedan planned to try to talk to him alone, and then call on me to back him up as a ‘seer’ if he couldn’t convince him to voluntarily end the curse. If we were lucky, we might not even have to go into the forest.

 Once Zathrian agreed to speak with Aedan, we were given leave to explore their camp. I decided to aid in my ‘seer’ reputation by going to visit the halla caretaker, looking into the eyes of the unhappy animal and then ‘mysteriously’ coming up with the solution – to check her mate for injuries. The elf was embarrassingly grateful and I hurried to decline any reward. Wynne offered to aid the Keeper’s First, Lanaya, in trying to heal their wounded men. Otherwise we gathered in a small group near the large campfire and tried to look non-threatening. I asked around about Aneirin, and was able to confirm for Wynne that he was alive and well.

 After probably two hours of talking inside the Keeper’s Aravel, Aedan finally emerged. One look at his face and I knew he hadn’t been successful. He gestured to me, and we stepped into the trees, whispering to avoid being overheard.

 “He’s too angry. I’m not getting anywhere. He’s raving about wanting them all dead. Think you can do anything?”

 “I’ll try. Listen, I’ve got an idea, but it’s going to suck for you. I want to get him talking about his children, about wanting revenge. The most expedient way I can think of to do that is to tell him the story of your family and Arl Howe. Perhaps he can see that there is life after something terrible like that. But…it means dragging you through it, making you talk about it. If I can’t get to him any other way…do you want me to try?”

 His expression was pained, and I wished I hadn’t asked, but he slowly nodded. “If that’s what it takes to avoid slaughtering those creatures, then yes. Try it.”

 I hugged him and kissed his cheek softly, and then we went back to the Keeper’s Aravel. Aedan introduced me and I nodded my head respectfully.

 “This Grey Warden expects me to believe you are some sort of seer.”

 “Yes, Keeper.” I was going for humble. Apparently I failed.

 “Don’t you ‘yes Keeper’ me. You want me to believe, you’re going to have to work harder than that, girl.”

 “Very well. Allow me to be brutally honest. You are a several-centuries-old blood mage. When you were a young man, your son was killed, and your daughter raped and left for dead by bandits. You were so enraged when she killed herself rather than give birth to the child of rape that you cast a spell using your own blood. You summoned a spirit and bound it to the body of a wolf, basically inventing lycanthropy. And as long as the curse survives, so do you. Conversely, as long as you survive, so does the curse. The initial wolf you created, who went by the name Witherfang, is now the Lady of the Forest. She, and many of the werewolves, have become sentient again. They are aware of their curse and it causes them agony to remain so, but they refuse to return to their beast-like state.

 “They ambushed you looking for revenge for causing their curse. They thought it would force you to talk to them. The Lady wishes only for death, and the only way for that to happen is for you to decide to release her – and the rest of the wolves – from the curse. Doing that will kill you and her, but the alternative is several of your clan will become werewolves, just like Danyla already has. And shame on you for lying to Athras, by the way. He deserves the truth.

 “Your anger, your need for vengeance, is what is responsible for all of this tragedy. Do you really think your daughter would want all of those people to remain cursed? Would she wish those of your own clan to become so? The men who violated her, who killed your son, have been dead for centuries. Most of the werewolves in this forest were innocents who got caught, and have done nothing to wrong you or to deserve this fate. Unless you release them, more will perish. And all for what? To preserve your own life? To exact vengeance on the world at large for how miserable you are?

 “You would have us kill Witherfang to try to fashion some sort of potion for your own clan members to prevent them from changing. Which may or may not work, let’s be honest. The Lady would see everyone released from this curse, including all of your friends. Which of you is seeing things more clearly? It is not you, Zathrian.

 “If you released the curse, you could join your family with the Creators. Feel at peace again. Wouldn’t that be worth it on its own? Vengeance is a hollow thing to live for. In all these centuries you’ve never found a way to move on. Don’t you think it’s time?”

 I didn’t stop, even when his angry veneer cracked and he was left sobbing, broken. He had caused centuries of tragedy. He needed to hear it. And if I was lucky, breaking through meant I wouldn’t have to drag Aedan through hell.

 He begged to be left alone, and we complied. I stopped, just outside, shuddering. For all that I despised what he’d become, I also understood it. And no matter how necessary, watching someone break isn’t much more pleasant than watching them die. Aedan put his arm around my shoulder and we headed over to join the rest of the group. They looked at me speculatively, and all I could do was shrug.

 We set up our tents out of the way but within the Dalish camp, where Lanaya indicated. Aedan and Bodahn went to chat with the craftsman, and I sat by the fire, trying to let the normal chatter and companionship of camping together soothe me. The Dalish offered for us to join them in their meal, and I managed to convince everyone to just not tell me what the meat in the stew was. It was delicious. Once we had been accepted, everyone in the Dalish camp was at least polite. They seemed a little freaked out about Zevran, but given that he probably offered to have sex with half of them, it was an appropriate response.

 We slept the night in our little area, apart from but within the Dalish camp. In the morning, Zathrian summoned Aedan and me. He had collected himself, and was back to the arrogant attitude that I disliked from the game, but at least he’d apparently thought a bit about things. He agreed to go into the ruins with us and talk to the Lady of the Forest, and if everything was as we said, he would agree to end the curse. My biggest concern was how we were going to avoid slaughtering our way through the werewolves’ ranks. I doubted they’d respect a white flag or similar gesture, but hoped that perhaps if they saw Zathrian with us, we could convince them to talk. We agreed to wait one more day while he made arrangements with Lanaya and the rest of his clan, and set out in the morning.

 A celebration of sorts was held that night, a goodbye party. It was the closest they could come to the descriptions of ancient elven ceremonies used prior to an elder going into prolonged hibernation. I vaguely recalled from a codex entry that in ancient Arlathan, elves were immortal and so after centuries they would go to sleep for a long time. I wasn’t clear on the concept, really, but didn’t want to risk causing offense by pressing for details. Zathrian admitted to the clan what he had done, creating the curse that had led to the werewolf problem they currently faced. He received much more sympathy and understanding than I expected. We tried to stay out of their way, huddling together in our little area, but couldn’t help but hear the singing. I couldn’t understand the words, but it was haunting and beautiful. I could see Leliana trying to memorise what she was hearing.

 We left early, hiking into the woods. I was impressed that we didn’t really have to slow our usual pace so Zathrian could keep up. We were ambushed by a couple of small groups of darkspawn, and my job was to stand back and keep Zathrian out of the fight. He mostly looked nauseous every time we encountered them, so keeping him away wasn’t tough. We ran into Danyla almost immediately after leaving camp. She begged us to kill her, but Zathrian managed to convince her to hold on a little longer. I was happy; it bothered me, in the game, killing her when I knew we would end the curse.

 Zathrian knew how to magically lower the barrier to the inner forest, and was able to pacify most of the sylvans we came across, which meant no messing around stealing acorns from mad hermits or killing tree spirits. We came across a couple of groups of non-sentient werewolves, which we were forced to fight, before we finally ran into Swiftrunner.

 None of us were quite prepared for the level of animosity the enormous creature showed towards Zathrian, and by extension, us. It took all of Aedan’s, Zathrian’s, and my persuasive abilities to even make him contemplate having a discussion. I think the only thing that might have worked in our favour was that I knew enough details about the Lady, and the ruins the werewolves had claimed, to convince him the Lady might want to talk to us. He agreed that if we all stayed put, under the watch of some of the other werewolves, he would go ask the Lady what she wanted him to do. I thought it was quite reasonable, though I knew the others were grumbling about one more delay. If it meant the difference between killing dozens of unlucky cursed souls, I was willing to wait.

 Swiftrunner warned us it would take a day or so for him to return to us, so we settled in and made camp. Zathrian was enraged at the interruption, but between Aedan and I, we managed to keep him calm. We built a fire, and invited the werewolves to join us for our meals, to Zathrian’s horror. He retired to his tent early, and we all breathed a slight sigh of relief. I wandered a little ways away and sat near a tiny creek, picking long grasses from the bank and working to soften them up.

 "So I've never really apologised for...what I said. Before." Alistair sat beside me, and I smiled at him before returning to working on the belt I was braiding.

 "I noticed that, actually."

 "I'm sorry, Sierra. I didn't mean to imply...that is, I just...I know it's not even any of my business anyway, but I..."

 "...have no idea how to get your foot back out of your mouth?"

 "Yes. That's it, exactly."

 "I know. And it's okay. I over-reacted, and it wasn't really even because of you - it's because of something your brother said back before we left Redcliffe on the way to Haven. I'm not angry with you, Alistair."

 "That's a huge relief. Thanks. And I am sorry." I smiled in forgiveness, and his eyes lit up a little. "Hey wait. My brother? What did he do?"

 "It doesn't matter now."

 "Is this what Aedan was asking you about that day?"

 "I'd rather just drop it, really."

 "No way. I want to know. Please?"

 "What's the point? You'd just be mad, it'd make things awkward, because frankly you're a terrible actor, and I'd really rather you didn't try to kill the King, so..."

 Alistair gave me puppy dog eyes, and I sighed. "...suffice it to say he suggested I become his mistress, and I declined. He didn't take it well, and accused me...of exactly the same things you did. I informed him of the error of his ways, and now it's behind us."

 "You're right, I will kill him. Or perhaps just maim him, and leave him for everyone to laugh at."

 "Hypocrisy much?" He grimaced, but I grinned to soften the blow. "Go ahead, at your own peril - you're the heir to the throne, you know. You kill him, and you'll have to become the King."

 "That’s…I…Argh! Let him have it then. He just better stay away from you..."

 "Down boy. Take a breath." I grinned, and he gave me a sheepish smile in return. "I'm just the first woman to say no to him, I think. He didn't know how to deal with it. I don't even think he ever even wanted me, it was...the principle of the thing. He gets it now.

 "Duncan...is like a father to me. I never had a father, and he's a little like the ones from my childhood fantasies. The whole 'relationship' was cooked up to keep Cailan away."

 "Sierra, you-"

 "You know about Cailan. Teagan - well, he's sweet but he's not my type. The closest I ever came to him was dancing that one night. And even if I were inclined, that nightmare sister-in-law of his would make me change my mind." He chuckled. "Plus he's too old for me."

 "You don't have to-"

 "Aedan is my brother. And I don't mean he's 'like a brother'. He actually is mine. Did you know we are exactly the same age? To the day. Bryce Cousland called me 'daughter', back in the temple. We think we were supposed to be twins, which is maybe why I'm here? I was accidentally born in the wrong place. I don't know. It would explain a lot, for sure."

 "So you’re a Cousland, then?"

 “Sort of, I suppose. But no one is going to believe that. Aedan’s parents die, and suddenly some crazy chick emerges from the woodwork trying to claim kinship? I’ll be seen as an opportunist trying to cash in on Aedan’s grief. And I may act like a noblewoman, but my lack of knowledge of protocol and things is sure to be a give away.”

 He thought about it, and shrugged. “You’re Aedan’s twin? Ha, I’m older than you.”

 "How old are you?"

 "Not telling!"

 I smacked his arm and carried on. "Aedan asked me to share his tent to protect me from Zevran. A brother protecting his sister's virtue. Though, to be honest, I'm not sure if he was more scared of Zev trying to worm his way into my bedroll, or his."

 Alistair laughed. "Stop, Sierra. You don't have to tell me. It's none of my business. I know that."

 "But I want to tell you, Alistair. I wanted to back then, even, I just...well, you didn't ask quite the way I'd hoped and I lost my temper. But I want you to know."

 "Why?"

 Oh boy.

 "It matters to me what you think of me. I don't want you to have doubts about me." He studied my face, and I looked down, letting my hair hang to hide the blush. "As for the others, well...I prefer men, so Leli and Morrigan and Wynne are out. Shale, most days I wish we could de-activate again. Sten is...Sten. Enough said. And as for Zevran..." I smiled fondly.

 "Zevran is a nice guy. He's funny, and attractive, and he is actually loyal once he decides to be. But he's also mercenary, doesn't see what's wrong with assassination as a career, and only cares about the big picture as it relates to him. He's committed to ending the Blight, but only because Aedan is. And being near him is eventually going to get dangerous. The Crows won't ever stop hunting him, and I am not willing to live my life like that - either on the run or at war. I wouldn't be with him even if I did see him that way. He is my friend, I hope, but nothing more.

 "Besides, he's also rather...taken."

 "Taken with what?"

 "Not with, by. And not what, whom. And if you haven't noticed by now, I'm not ruining it for you."

 "Huh?"

 I giggled. "Nevermind."

 His smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "And me?"

 I looked up, startled, and quickly looked away again, hiding behind my hair. "Alistair..."

 "I've heard you say that you'll never be with anyone from Thedas. You've given your reasons for the others; I'm curious what your reasons are with me. I'm neither your brother nor father, I'm not an assassin, and while I may be in danger, anyone with me wouldn't be. I'm not a woman, a golem, or a Qunari. So...why not me?"

 "I can't-"

 "Please? I really need to know. Please tell me?"

 "I'm trying, but you keep interrupting me!"

 He looked sheepish again.

 "It's not about you, Alistair. Between us...it's about me. I can't..." I struggled with the words. "I can't do that to you. Look. I’m not so arrogant to assume that you would even want to be with me. But even if I knew, absolutely, that you did...I don't know how long I have here. Maybe I can stay, but I could be yanked back any time, never to be seen again. I don't know who I am, where I belong. I'm still half convinced I'm just crazy and you don't really exist. If you fall-" I swallowed thickly. "If you fall in love with me, what will it do to you if I disappear and never return? What would that do to me?" I didn't add the concern about what would happen to me after his Calling came. It hurt too much to even think about it.

 "And besides. You may not want to be, but you're the heir to the throne. Anything happens to Cailan, and it's all you. You need to marry someone who can provide noble heirs to the Theirin line. Legitimate ones, with noble mothers everyone recognises. And even if somehow you weren't, it hardly works out well for you politically if I disappear in the middle of a dinner party. And I don't think you having a relationship with some unstable, universe-hopping pseudo-templar will go over well in Weisshaupt, do you?"

 "So the answer is, I can't. Even assuming you had the slightest desire to be with me, I can't." I reached up and touched his face, my finger over his lips, preventing him from saying anything. I smiled sadly, stood up carefully, and walked away, leaving the finished belt behind.

 I carefully avoided being alone for the rest of the evening, denying any chance at getting drawn into the same conversation with Alistair again. I felt his eyes on me from across the campfire and tried not to return his stare. I crawled into bed without a word, letting a couple of silent tears trickle down my cheek. When Aedan came to bed, he had no idea what had happened, but seemed to know something had; he held my hand, and didn’t sneak out to be with Zevran. Or maybe he just thought the werewolves would try to eat him if they caught him sneaking…

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-One: Necessity Rules

 Before lunch the next day, a very anxious-looking Swiftrunner was back. He was told to bring us to see the Lady, as I knew he would. He added his own stipulation though – we had to have our weapons bound or leave them behind. I knew it wouldn’t be a huge hindrance – they’d never find all of Zevran’s daggers, Shale didn’t use a weapon anyway, and the two mages were hardly helpless while empty-handed, but Sten, Alistair, and Leliana were all less than thrilled with the prospect. But Zathrian pointed out the hypocrisy – we were asking him to go literally into the wolves’ den, because we supposedly trusted the werewolves; was it really that strange that we be asked to show a sign of that faith? I was vaguely concerned about Zathrian turning on us, but allowing that thought to show would only end us up in worse trouble. I tied my daggers into their sheaths as directed, with some sort of thin twine Swiftrunner presented.

 Once ready, we followed Swiftrunner deeper into the forest. When we finally came to the ruin, we were brought through a side tunnel directly into the Lady’s domain, bypassing the undead, spiders, and the dragon in the ruins altogether, to my relief. Though I wondered if we should go in to the rest of the ruin later, since I knew that dragon had quite a hoard, and somewhere down there was a way for Wynne or Morrigan to learn to become an arcane warrior. The number of werewolves had increased as we got closer and closer to the Lady, and they all flanked us, low-pitched growls echoing through the hallways. None of them spoke, they just watched us, and I couldn’t tell if the stares were hostile, hopeful, or just curious.

 Finally we were led to a large, open room that had been breached by nature in multiple places. Roots projected through the ceiling, and a few trees even grew in drifts of dirt that had collected in the rubble. Sylvans, I remembered, though I hoped we wouldn’t have to learn that the hard way. We were ushered into the centre of the room, surrounded by huge, furred, growling werewolves. Suddenly they parted to allow a beautiful, naked woman to approach us. Her skin was an odd, pale, almost grey colour, and was crisscrossed with vines, so dark a green they appeared black, which barely covered her nipples and obscured her sex. Alistair blushed a deep crimson and turned away; Sten looked uncomfortable and also averted his eyes. By contrast, Aedan met her eyes with equanimity and Zevran didn’t even try to hide his appreciative look.

 The werewolves all slightly bowed as she walked between them, and the growling quieted; even I was a little bit awed at the aura of authority that surrounded the Lady of the Forest. Her voice was sweet and melodic but undeniably alien. She spoke briefly with Aedan, and then approached Zathrian. His face was guarded, and the growling began again as she got close to him, but to everyone’s amazement, she walked right up to him, reached out and pulled him into her arms. A gasp echoed around the room, the werewolves who’d spent so long hating Zathrian all apparently gob-smacked. I saw Zathrian’s face falter and then he began sobbing before I averted my eyes. Everyone moved subtly away to allow them some privacy, which was also something I didn’t expect. Amazing – when you don’t slaughter half of them to reach her, they’re a little more understanding!

 We huddled together, all of us still somewhat uneasy, eyeing the werewolves and Zathrian with the Lady. The latter two were deep in discussion, to my continued surprise. The werewolves were also uncertain, milling around and talking in deep gravelly voices amongst themselves. I strolled over to a toppled marble column and sat down, Prince at my heels. A werewolf watched me do it and strode in my direction. I wasn’t sure whether I’d violated some unknown rule about sitting in the Lady’s presence, and debated whether to spring back up or remain where I was. Before he could reach me, Alistair was in front of me, sheltering me from whatever the wolf was going to do. He held his hands out, palms forward.

 “Easy, friend.” He nodded towards the Lady of the Forest. “That is your lady; this is ours. Leave her alone.” As he spoke, Aedan, Zevran, Leliana, and even Sten and Morrigan came over to join him, shielding me with their bodies but keeping their postures non-threatening. Prince growled, low and threatening. I guess he didn’t get the memo about not picking fights! I was horribly embarrassed, and extremely pleased all at the same time. The werewolf growled, but backed off when Swiftrunner barked at him. I couldn’t understand the language, but the meaning was clear in any language. He tucked his tail behind him and turned, slinking away.

 Aedan sat himself beside me, Leliana on the opposite side, and Alistair crouched in front of me. The rest stood around in seeming random positions, but the tension was still quite obvious. My companions were a little over-protective, and I was mortified to discover how safe and warm inside that made me feel. Even when I’d just shot down Alistair’s advance…

 Finally Zathrian and the Lady rejoined the group. We all stood to meet them. All traces of Zathrian’s arrogance were gone, and he stood, slightly stooped, face drawn. He looked…old.

 “The Lady has convinced me that she wishes only to be allowed to die. My hate blinded me, for so long…I knew nothing else. It is time to let that go.” He turned to us. “Thank you, Grey Wardens, and you, Seer. I will prepare the ritual to end my curse. Please…please tell Lanaya that I have great faith in her, and that I know she will be a better Keeper than I have been these past centuries?”

 We nodded, solemnly, and he stepped to the centre of the room, sitting down and closing his eyes. The Lady did a quick circuit among the werewolves, not talking, but touching each one as she passed. When she reached Swiftrunner, she took his shoulders in her hands, and he bent so his forehead touched hers. They stayed like that for a few moments, and we all averted our eyes, wishing we were elsewhere. She finally separated from the huge beast, and approached Zathrian. She shimmered, and her skin seemed to suddenly change, and where there had been a beautiful, if unearthly woman, now there was a large, white wolf. It padded over to Zathrian, then settled onto its belly, head resting on Zathrian’s knee. He opened his eyes one last time to lock eyes with the creature, then raised a small, wickedly sharp dagger and dragged it across the palm of his opposite hand.

 The usual tingly crawly sensation went up my spine before he did it, and Alistair and I traded looks. There was a flash of light, and when our eyes cleared, all that remained of Zathrian and the Lady were bones. The next thing we noticed was that all the werewolves had changed back into human form. They were naked, more men than women, and a variety of ages from teens to elderly. They talked amongst themselves for a bit, as we silently watched. Some knew they had family to go back to, while others could be sure their families were either dead or had moved on; those with nowhere to go got sorted out into small groups accompanying those who had homes and agreed to take them; soon, all of the former werewolves had grouped up and made their way out of the ruins. Several pledged to go to Redcliffe and join the forces we hoped to gather there to combat the Blight, and I was impressed.

 We were finally alone in the crumbling ruins. We sat to chat about our options, including confronting the undead and the dragon in the ruins, or just leaving. Aedan was reluctant to leave the dangerous creatures lurking down there in case some innocent stumbled on the place in the future, and so with a sigh we all agreed to clear the ruin out. I climbed to my feet, stopping Alistair before he could walk away from me.

 “I’m your Lady?”

 He flushed slightly, face defensive. “Yeah, well, you are, whether you like it or not. You let Aedan lead, you even make a good show out of it, but we all know we’d follow you in a heartbeat if you contradicted him. And you…remind all of us what we’re fighting for. It’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re in a dark place, surrounded by darkspawn and dragons and abominations.”

 His shoulders squared as he turned to walk away, and it was my turn to be left, standing with my mouth hanging open, looking ridiculous.

 The group gathered around the doors to the rest of the ancient ruin, and I finally joined them, at the back, daggers out. Going backwards through the ruin felt weird, and of course, the first thing we encountered was a room full of undead and an arcane horror. I could feel that horrible, itchy, magic aura from the room next to it, so we were prepared; Alistair drained most of its mana, Morrigan drained a bit more, and then Aedan, Zevran, Sten, and Alistair hacked it to pieces. Once it was dead, the rest of the corpses were pretty easy to defeat.

 A few more rooms of corpses followed, and, clumsy as they were, I was even able to help out a little bit. I got yelled at by Wynne, but ignored her. Alistair was harder to ignore – he took me by the arm and shouted at me angrily. I agreed to stay back with a sigh. We found the room with the odd phylactery containing the spirit that taught the Arcane Warrior abilities. Wynne stepped up and held the phylactery. It was creepy, actually, to watch – her eyes rolled back in her head, her body lifted up slightly as though she hung from a thread on the ceiling, and she convulsed for about a minute. When it was done she slumped down, and Aedan caught her, easing her to the ground. She regained consciousness after a minute, and claimed to feel fine. With no one else who could heal to check her out, we were forced to believe her. She claimed to know all about Arcane Warrior magic now, and we watched her destroy the phylactery on the nearby altar.

 Next we ended up killing a shade in the shape of an elven woman, and managed to complete the elven ritual without the tablet, since I knew the steps from the wiki. The Juggernaut armour was impressive looking, and fit Alistair perfectly. I was relieved that the pieces were actually all together; apparently the hide and seek out in the ruins with tombstones was just for entertainment value.

 There were more skeletons, and then eventually a set of stairs leading up towards the surface. We knew the dragon was at the top of the stairs, and Aedan convinced me to wait at the bottom until he called. I have never been known for my patience, and this was no exception. I stood at the bottom of the stairs, looking balefully up, anxiously fidgeting. I’m going to take up nail biting, at this rate!

 I heard the clashing of metal, the roaring of a dragon, and knew the fight was on. It lasted for an eternity. Frustrated and afraid, I couldn’t wait; I took the stairs two at a time as I raced to the top to check on my friends. Barging through the door, which someone had closed, the scene before me was something out of my worst nightmare.

 The air smelled like sulfur and made my eyes water. The source of the smell, an enormous fire-breathing dragon, was in the middle of the room surrounded by my companions. Off to my right, Wynne was down with blood trickling from a wound in her head. Her eyes were closed, and I didn’t know if she was unconscious or dead. Sten, Shale, and Alistair faced the dragon, who would alternate snapping and clawing at one then another. Zevran and Aedan were nowhere to be seen. Leliana was back in a corner, firing arrow after arrow, but most of them just bounced off the creature’s thick hide. Morrigan stood over Wynne’s prone form, alternately shooting frost spells to slow the dragon down and keep the fire from causing too much damage, and trying to rouse the elderly healer at her feet.

 As I watched, the dragon spun, its tail arcing through the air, connecting with Shale and tossing her towards Sten. Both went down in a tangled pile of limbs and rocks, and I briefly wondered if Sten could survive being landed upon by Shale. Stopping the turn, Alistair was left alone facing the dragon. And then I realised it was taking a deep breath, which I could only assume foreshadowed a blast of flame; Alistair, being the only nearby target, had nowhere to run. He was going to burn. He raised his shield, but even from across the room I could see that his shoulders had slumped; he knew he couldn’t survive.

 It was like the world suddenly quit spinning, like time just…stopped. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, could only stare helplessly at the man I was stupidly in love with and watch him die. Alistair spotted me, and smiled a slow, sad smile, and I felt my heart shatter into thousands of tiny pieces. I suddenly realised that everyone I’d ever cared about was in that room, and at least one of them was going to die. Something inside me snapped. I had not risked my life at Ostagar to save Duncan and Cailan for Alistair, only to watch him burn.

 And then suddenly time caught back up, and before I even had time to think, I was running. I pulled my daggers from their sheaths, and shouting at the top of my lungs, pelted towards the dragon, whose profile faced me. I waved my arms like a crazy person, trying to get the beast’s attention, and it seemed to work. Suddenly faced with a new adversary, the dragon’s head turned towards me. It seemed to be moving in slow motion, but I realised that was just my perception heightened by fear. Realising what I was up to, Alistair shouted something at me, but it was too late.

 The dragon’s mouth opened and a great gout of flame erupted from its maw. It started before the head was facing me, splashing harmlessly against the stone walls of the ruin, but as it continued to turn the heat grew more and more intense. I opened my mouth to scream in agony, but the air was so hot I couldn’t even draw a breath. I felt my skin start to burn, my armour blackening, and mercifully began to lose consciousness. The last thing I saw as I fell was Zevran climbing up the beast’s back, and Alistair leaping at the neck, digging his sword in and hanging on. And then everything went black.

 ********

I dreamt of home. I was quite sure it was a dream – I couldn’t look around, couldn’t sit up. How I could dream when I should be dead was beyond me, but apparently rumours of my demise must have been exaggerated. My doctor was there, trying to talk to me, but my mouth was full of cotton or something, and I couldn’t make any sound. So this is what a lucid dream feels like. I would have pinched myself but I couldn’t move. I tried to think of things that should wake me up – the smell of my own roasting human flesh, my fear of what happened after I passed out, the incredible pain I had felt, even tried imagining Alistair kissing me, anything to shock my mind into waking up. It didn’t work. My heart was pounding as I worried about my companions in Ferelden. Not a good time to be sleeping, Sierra. Wake up!

 I briefly wondered if I could be in the Fade again, but figured the answer must be no if I was able to have that coherent a thought. When I’d been in the Fade before, I’d felt very confused, unable to think clearly. This felt different.

 I tried concentrating on what my dream doctor was saying, but it was like I was hearing underwater; I caught every third or fifth word, and my lip-reading skills weren’t strong enough to fill in the blanks. He started shining a little tiny flashlight into my eyes – ow! – and then proceeded to pinch my hands. I’d have screeched and pulled away if I was capable, but my arms felt like they were cooked spaghetti, which coincidentally had the density of lead. I couldn’t even twitch. But my assumption that this was a dream went out the window – I’d never dreamt of pain before, that I could remember.

 My eyes drifted closed, and when they opened again, Aedan was there. He looked afraid. He was shaking me, and I couldn’t understand him, but knew enough to guess he was calling my name. I still couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. Wynne came into view, and Aedan was talking to her, arms waving in jerky gestures. Wynne’s face was calm, but the confusion was clear. She didn’t understand either.

 The next time I blinked, I was back on Earth. It was dizzying and confusing, and I wanted to cry. Maybe this was what I’d feared since first realising I was travelling to Ferelden – I was stuck somehow, between worlds. I’d never wake up again, never see Alistair smile or ruffle Aedan’s hair or tease him about Zevran…The one part of my body apparently under voluntary control was my eyes, and tears welled up before I could blink them away. I could feel them trickle down my cheek, but couldn’t brush them away. It seemed a major indignity, somehow.

 The doctor noticed the tears, and was immediately back in my face. I concentrated, and he finally tried to speak slowly and clearly.

 “Sierra, can you hear me?” He face-palmed. “Sorry, that was dumb. Listen, if you can understand me, blink once for yes and twice for no. Okay?”

 I slowly, deliberately blinked once.

 “Okay I just want to test our system. Lemme think…uh, is the sky purple?”

 I blinked twice. He smiled.

 “Excellent. Alright listen. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on – you started convulsing and your skin blistered, then cleared again a few minutes later. Now you’re not moving. Can you feel things?”

 I blinked once.

 “Huh. So, I guess…some sort of locked-in syndrome. I’ll have to try-“

 I interrupted with two emphatic blinks.

 “No? No to what? Not locked in?”

 “I…okay, I’m not even sure what to start asking, with such limited response possible. Do you understand what’s going on?”

 Two blinks.

 “But you don’t think it’s locked in syndrome.”

 Two blinks.

 “I…well I suppose you wouldn’t be able to blink if it was. Alright, well I’ll do some research. See what I can figure out. Are you in pain?”

 Two blinks.

 “Okay. Do you need anything? Hungry, thirsty, need to use the bathroom?”

 Three blinks.

 “Uh…oh. You need something, but none of those things?”

 One blink.

 “Um…are you cold? Need a blanket?”

 Three blinks.

 “Not a blanket? Something else?”

 One blink. He looked stumped. I wanted to scream. Something flickered behind his eyes. Enlightenment?

 “Oh, let me guess. You want your clothes on.”

 One very relieved blink.

 “Alright, I’ll see what I can do.”

 I settled in to wait, and my eyes drifted shut again. How can I be tired? All I’ve done is sleep. When I woke again, I was in Ferelden. I was being carried, but I couldn’t turn my head to see who carried me. I recognised the ruins we walked through, and realised we must be leaving them, since we were heading through the werewolf lair and up the stairs. It made sense – with at least Wynne injured, and me unconscious, staying around as prey for spiders and undead wasn’t very appealing. I was desperate for the ability to look around, so I could reassure myself that everyone was safe. Whatever happened to me, I wanted to know. Sadly my prayers went unanswered, and the back of Aedan, in front of me, was all I succeeded in seeing. At least he’s safe. I closed my eyes and let the tears come.

 The next time I opened my eyes, I was lying on the ground, blue sky shining down on me. Ferelden, still. Maybe I’m stabilising again. I was highly relieved to find myself able to turn my head. I felt weak, but at least capable of moving to some extent. On one side, there was nothing but trees, but the opposite side showed me Aedan’s sleeping face. I could feel his large warm hand gripping mine, and squeezed gently. His eyes popped open, and a huge smile broke out when he saw me looking at him.

 “Wynne! She’s awake!” He hollered across what I assumed was our camp, and then turned back to me. “How are you, sweetheart?”

 I tried to talk, but a croak was all I managed. “Water?”

 Wynne dropped down beside me, already prepared with a water skin. She carefully poured me a tiny mouthful of what tasted like the best thing ever, though my brain informed me it was just cold water. I swished enough to moisten the cotton balls filling my mouth, and then opened for more. After a few swallows, I was finally able to clear my throat and talk.

 “Wynne? You okay?”

 She smiled at me. “It’ll take a bit more than a head wound to keep me down, child.”

 I sighed in relief. “Alistair?”

 “Sleeping right now. But he’s fine otherwise. You saved him, Sierra. He carried you out of that nightmare place, if that tells you how well he is.”

 “Good.” I smiled dreamily. “Sleepy.”

 “Rest, child. You’re safe and all is well.” She stood, and the last thing I heard before I fell back asleep was her saying “I need to go check on Morrigan. Stay with her, Aedan.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Two: Road to Recovery

 I woke with the memory of what Wynne was saying as I fell asleep. What was wrong with Morrigan? Had something happened as they exited the ruins? I groaned as I sat up, and immediately felt an arm wrap around behind me, supporting me.

 I turned towards the source of the support. “Aedan? Wha…” I cut off. It wasn’t Aedan with his arm around me. It was Alistair. His handsome face looked down at me, closer than I’d ever been, and I was momentarily struck dumb. I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

 “Your eyebrows are gone.” Oh, smooth, Sierra. Why not just ask him if you can have his babies while you’re at it?

 Said badly singed eyebrows were raised, and he smirked slightly as he responded. “Ah, so that’s why you did it. Couldn’t stand to see me looking silly without eyebrows?”

 I was saved from having to reply to this by the timely arrival of Wynne and Aedan. Alistair backed off and let Wynne check me out, while Aedan supported me and fussed over me.

 “How do you feel, Sierra?” Wynne gave her professional, bland smile as she checked my pulse.

 “Weak. And hungry. Like I ran a thousand miles and haven’t eaten in a month. Where are we?”

 “We’re still in the Brecilian Forest, on our way back to the Dalish camp. What you are feeling is normal, given what you’ve been through the past few days.”

 “And what exactly have I been through? Oh, and what happened to Morrigan?”

 Alistair laughed. “You happened to her!”

 Wynne shot him a dirty look, and he shut up. “She’s fine. She…well, she’s insisted on learning a healing spell. And a mana rejuvenation spell. So you never have an excuse to do that again, or so she said. And she rather…overdid it, trying to learn. She’ll sleep for a while, but she’s fine.”

 I flushed. “For me? Wow. I’ll have to thank her. Once she wakes up, that is. You, uh, didn’t answer my first question. What exactly happened?”

 “You don’t remember?” Wynne looked concerned, and her hand went to my forehead.

 “I remember the dragon. Nothing after that.” Wynne, Alistair, and Aedan exchanged glances. “Now you’re freaking me out. Just tell me!”

 Aedan spoke. “Sierra, you…almost died. The dragon almost burned you alive. You distracted it enough that Alistair and Zev were able to kill it. Morrigan put you under with a sleep spell until Wynne recovered and could heal you, but then you wouldn’t wake up. We carried you out unconscious.”

 Alistair cut in. “And my eyebrows will grow back.”

 Wynne rolled her eyes at him. “Sierra, I very nearly didn’t get you back. We’re lucky my spirit seems to have taken a liking to you. I’m still not sure why it took so long for you to wake up, though. What, in Andraste’s name, were you thinking about, charging a dragon?”

 I felt a little bit guilty, looking at the concern written on my friend’s faces. I didn’t want to die, but given the choices I’d had…Ferelden needed Alistair. I need Alistair. I just need him to live. Is that too much to ask?

 They were all looking at me, Wynne’s expression concerned, Alistair’s now confused. Oh, I’m supposed to say something? Aedan looked amused, like he knew where my mind had wandered to.

 “Um. Sorry?”

 I had no idea what the right answer was. Did I feel bad for scaring them all? Yes. Did I regret my actions? Not in the least. And I’d do it again, a thousand times, to keep any one of them alive. Especially Alistair. Not that I was hoping I’d have to. Suicide was never something I’d considered.

 “Just don’t do it again, Sierra.”

 “I can’t promise that, Wynne. If it comes down to it…if it’s life or death…I’ll do it again.”

 “You could die, child.”

 I shrugged. I really don’t care. Huh. “That’s a price I’m willing to pay. I’m…I won’t say expendable, that’s not what I mean, but…I’m not the important one, here. You guys are. If you don’t end the blight, a whole lot more people are going to lose their lives. If the cost of keeping you all alive is my life, then I accept that.”

 There was a veritable explosion of shocked, angry come-backs after that declaration, and Aedan behind me shook me slightly. Alistair stalked off, apparently too angry to even shout at me. Leliana came over, and when she overheard what I had said, she started in as well.

 “Hey. I didn’t save Duncan and Cailan for Alistair, just to watch him die instead. You might as well stop, because you’re never going to convince me it was the wrong thing to do. I’m grateful I survived – I don’t want to die, you know – but I won’t feel sorry for saving him.”

 I closed my eyes and let it wash over me, half-reclined against Aedan. I was still hungry, but the fatigue seemed more important, especially when fighting it meant listening to people scold me. It had the intended effect, but not in the way I expected – the scolding stopped, and all of a sudden everyone was falling all over themselves to make me more comfortable. Wynne did some sort of magic thing that tickled – some sort of diagnostic, like a CT scan, I guessed – and Leliana ran off to find me something to eat. I tried to eat it, but my arms were so tired that Aedan actually had to help me finish the soup. Afterwards, I was pleasantly muzzy and slumped back into Aedan’s arms, drowsing. Leli sang, something Fereldan for once, and it was nice just to relax.

 After a bit, Morrigan emerged from a tent and came over to the campfire. Her steps were slow, halting, and her posture stooped; she wasn’t feeling well, clearly. I struggled to sit up, and grabbed her hand once she sat nearby.

 “Morrigan, are you alright? I was worried when Wynne told me what happened.”

 She looked at me haughtily, but the effect was somewhat spoiled by the dark circles under her eyes. “I doubt that, somehow.”

 “No, I really was. I don’t wish for you to make yourself ill trying to learn new spells.” I squeezed her hand lightly. “Thank you. I know healing isn’t your preferred type of spell. I want you to know I’m grateful.”

 She studied my face for a moment, and finally nodded.

 I pitched my voice low, so that only Aedan and Morrigan could hear. “How bad was it, honestly? Learning from Wynne?” I almost thought I saw a smile twitch.

 “Let’s just say the old bat did not miss the opportunity to lecture me on how she has been trying to teach me healing since we met.”

 I winced. “Thanks for taking one for the team, Morrigan.”

 Her lips twitched again. “You are welcome. ‘Twas lucky it was you who was injured, actually – had it been the Chantry boy, I most certainly wouldn’t have bothered…or perhaps I’d have turned him into a toad when I recovered.” She said it loud enough that Alistair, just returning from wherever he’d stormed off to earlier, could hear; he tried to shoot her a dirty look, but wasn’t successful due to the audible gulp of fear. I giggled and Aedan snorted.

 “Morrigan! You do have a sense of humour!”

 Aedan’s comment solicited giggles from Leliana and me, and even Alistair smirked, though her joke was at his expense. Morrigan simply sniffed and turned to her own dinner, though I saw her lips twist wryly when she thought no one was looking.

 I dozed off, head on Aedan’s shoulder, with my friends around me, talking and joking around the campfire. As exhausted as I was, the only thing I could feel was contentment. When I woke, I was in a dark tent, and as always when I woke somewhere I didn’t fall asleep, I wondered who had put me there. It was the tent I shared with Aedan, though his bedroll was empty. I figured out why when I heard his voice, whispering outside.

 “No.”

 “Aedan-” Alistair’s voice was surprisingly forceful, even if pitched quietly.

 “I get it, Alistair. I do. But she’s not ready. She can barely feed herself. It’s going to have to wait.”

 They moved off together, and I sighed heavily once they were out of earshot. I wasn’t looking forward to the next private conversation with Alistair. I fell asleep again, thankfully not remembering my dreams.

 In the morning, we packed up and decided to try to head to the Dalish camp. At first I tried to walk; Alistair took my pack, as usual, and I smiled gratefully at him. It quickly became obvious, however, that even unburdened I wasn’t going to get very far. My feet were dragging before I’d gone fifty steps, and at one point I actually fell asleep on my feet, and collapsed, waking with a start when my face hit the dirt. Dreading what was next, I sat huddled into a ball. As I expected, Alistair shifted both my pack and his own to Sten’s broad shoulders, then reached down and picked me up. Again. I didn’t even protest; I knew I’d just be threatened with being thrown over Sten’s shoulder like so much luggage. At least the upside of being carried was that I could eat while we travelled; I found myself quite ravenous.

 We stopped for lunch so that Alistair could eat as well; his hands were sort of full, and I was far too embarrassed to even think about feeding him as he carried me. Afterwards, Shale approached me, and to my surprise, offered to carry me for part of the afternoon. I would have declined, but after carrying me for hours, Alistair was rubbing his shoulders and trying to stretch when he thought I wasn’t looking, and I couldn’t turn down the chance to give him a break, even as I acknowledged I’d be disappointed not to be cradled in his arms for a while. Instead of cradling me, like Alistair did, she placed me up on her shoulder, and then allowed me to brace myself with feet wedged into cracks in the stone.

 “Is this how Wilhelm used to force you to carry him?” I took the resulting rumble as a yes. “I’m sorry, Shale. I would never have asked you to carry me.”

 “I…believe It means that. I find myself feeling oddly grateful for being treated like a person, in this strange group.”

 “I can understand that. Although, you are a person, it should just go without saying that you be treated as such.”

 “I…would ask a question, if It would permit me.”

 “Of course. Ask me anything.”

 “It said….that I was once a dwarf. A female dwarf.”

 “Yes. Shayle, a warrior of House Cadash. You volunteered to be made into a golem to try to save your Thaig.”

 “Does It know…why golems were created?”

 “To fight darkspawn. A long time ago, the Dwarven Kingdom was much larger than it currently is, covering hundreds of miles underground, with roads leading between each Thaig. Then the darkspawn came, and many of the Thaigs were overwhelmed. Those who could, fled eventually to Orzammar. Caridin created the Anvil of the Void to create golems – the ultimate weapon against darkspawn. It started with volunteers, like you, but then the King started forcing criminals and his political enemies into it too. Unfortunately, the golems required activation rods to function, and as the dwarves fighting with them died, the golems became deactivated.”

 “And how did I end up property of him?” The last word was hissed.

 “That I don’t know. I can only assume at some point he entered the Deep Roads and found you and your activation rod. Shale…why did you decide to believe me now? When I tried to tell you before…”

 “I…in the temple. Where we found the ashes of the squishy ones’ prophet? I met…myself, I think. My dwarf self.”

 “Oh! I wondered what happened to everyone.”

 “And It has not pried into everyone’s visions? I find myself surprised.”

 “Yeah, yeah, I’m nosey. I know. But I figured if no one mentioned it, I was best to leave it alone. I didn’t want to talk about it either.”

 “I am…sorry. For not believing It.”

 “Thanks, Shale. If you ever…” I can’t believe I’m saying this. “…want to talk, I’m always willing.”

 She rumbled something that I couldn’t interpret, and I let it slide.

 We spent the rest of the afternoon walking in silence. I was exhausted, and clinging to Shale’s shoulder sapped all of my energy. Stopping early, both for me and Morrigan, Aedan actually had to help me down or I was sure I’d have fallen. He fed me again, and I started to feel like a hobbit, with second breakfasts and elevensies. Tired as I was, I muttered something about not having furry feet before falling soundly asleep on Aedan’s shoulder.

 When I woke in the morning, I was being carried again. I’d apparently slept through the night, then the usual morning activities, and then being picked up by Sten, of all people. When I opened my eyes, Sten’s expression was one of amused disbelief, as if he couldn’t figure out how he’d been talked into this, and I didn’t want to think about the conversation Aedan must have had with him to convince the Qunari to carry me. And actually carry me comfortably, instead of thrown over his shoulder. My respect for Aedan’s diplomacy went up a couple of notches.

 He was walking with Alistair on one side of him, and Aedan on the other; both Wardens were tripping over themselves to encourage Sten to keep going, and to tell him not to hurt me or wake me up. In fact they were so engrossed in telling Sten what to do that neither noticed I was actually awake. I listened for a few minutes, and Sten’s expression became downright smug when he saw me watching. I finally broke down laughing when Aedan nagged Sten not to wake me, for the third time in two minutes.

 “I appreciate the thought, brother, but I’m quite certain you and Alistair were far more likely to wake me with talking than Sten was with walking!” Both of them blushed furiously, and Sten actually laughed out loud. I rule! I made the Qunari laugh!

 They gave me a break for personal needs, and after I insisted on walking at least for a while. I scarfed some bread and jerky while we walked, and realised that I actually was feeling dramatically better, though still a bit fatigued. I walked all the way back to the Dalish camp, ending up really, really annoyed by the combination of Aedan, Alistair, and Wynne all hovering around me and checking on me every five seconds. I tried walking with Shale or Sten, hoping that would be enough for them to leave me alone, but no such luck. By the time we reached the Dalish, I mumbled some excuses, left Aedan to talk to Lanaya by himself, and took off into the woods a little ways to throw myself down on a rock and sit in blessed silence for a little bit.

 I’d sat only a few moments, when I got an uneasy feeling, making my muscles tense and my hands reach for my daggers. I realised what it was in a couple more seconds and called out.

 “Might as well sit, Zev. Hovering is only going to irritate me more.”

 “Apologies, cara mia. You always seem to know when I’m lurking nearby. Aedan made me promise to keep an eye on you.” He settled on the rock beside me, and I leaned against him slightly.

 I sighed. “I know. And part of me is rather thrilled to have a brother who cares about me; the rest wants to strangle him to death.”

 “I’d prefer it if you didn’t. I’ve never been interested in necrophilia, particularly, and I don’t have the desire to start now.”

 I laughed. “I’ll make you a deal then. I’ll resist the urge to kill him, if you help me distract him from fussing over me.”

 “Oh, this sounds interesting, no? Any limits on how I distract him?”

 “Not from my perspective, Zev.” I shot him a naughty grin and he responded. “Have fun, just keep the details to yourself. Now, how am I going to get Wynne and Alistair off my back?”

 “Alistair would be too easy, bella donna…you have many ways to distract a handsome templar, I’m sure, and if not I’d be willing to teach you-”

 “Thank, Zev, not quite what I had in mind. I’ll let you know if I ever reconsider.”

 He tsk’d at me. “You’re as bad as a Fereldan.”

 We sat quietly until the sun started to set and it got colder, then headed back to our campsite within the Dalish camp. Aedan was back, the Dalish were mourning, but Danyla was back with Athras and as I sat in a circle with my companions, I was pleased with life for a bit. I knew I’d put up with a lot worse than everyone fussing over me to stay this happy. Again I fell asleep on Aedan’s shoulder, drowsing comfortably in the warmth of the fire.

 ********

 I woke in hospital, back in my skimpy gown. Given that I never soiled myself, I was truly wishing that they would leave me in my clothes. I thought I might have a chat with the next nurse I ran into. Sitting up, I pushed my call bell and then stood, fishing around in the little wardrobe by my bed for my clothes. A calm-looking, older nurse arrived as I was finishing dressing, and she smiled.

 “They weren’t lying! You’ve got to be the only coma patient who stays strong enough to get up on your own.”

 I blushed, embarrassed at the thought of rumours circulating about my bizarre condition. “Yep, that’s me. The freak.”

 She smiled kindly. “Well, now I don’t know about that, but you’re a little bit of a marvel, I’ll give you that. The doctor is going to want to talk to you, and I imagine you’d like to get cleaned up after…”

 “Yeah, about that. Is there someone I can ask for permission to leave me dressed in my clothes unless I’m being bathed? I really dislike the gowns you all keep making me wear.” I waved my hand in the direction of the skimpy piece of fabric on the bed.

 She laughed. “I can understand that – they’re a bit drafty for my tastes too, deary. I’ll see what I can do.”

 She reminded me of Wynne, and I thought the two would actually get along quite famously. She went off to find the doctor, and I wandered over to the nearby sink to check the mirror. I now looked almost exactly like my Fereldan self. The only difference was the nose…and I vaguely recalled a story where I got hit in the face with a ball as a kid, and wondered if perhaps I’d broken it at some point. My clothes were slightly baggy, with extra space in the ass, chest, and stomach, but a bit tight around the shoulders. Yet somehow my skin didn’t sag like I thought it would after weight loss. Every time I thought about that my head threatened to explode. My clothes change size in Ferelden but the ones here are now too big, yet somehow my skin still fits right? I was interrupted in my self-inspection when my doctor wandered in, still looking worn out.

 “Do you ever sleep, doc?”

 He smiled, but the expression was forced. “It’s hard to sleep with you scaring the pants off everyone all the time, Sierra.”

 I felt somehow guilty, which made me scoff. Like I want to burn to death? I tried not to, but blushed anyway. “What can I say? I guess I like the attention.”

 He scowled at me, and I scowled back. “What? I don’t exactly enjoy the convulsions and things either! I don’t control it, you know.”

 His face softened and he sighed. “I know. It’s not your fault. It’s just so damned…frustrating, to have no idea what’s going on with you. Those burns…I thought you were going to die.”

 “I…think I probably was supposed to, really. Being anchored here might have been what saved me, even. I don’t know for sure, but it was like I got stuck between the two places. I don’t know. I’d rather not do it again, I can tell you that.”

 He studied my face as I spoke. “I get the impression that given the choice, you’d stay there. You’d never come back.” I nodded, somewhat sheepishly. “Is it really that much better there?”

 “It’s…different, I guess. Some things are definitely worse – no showers, no toilets, no toilet paper…but there’s also magic and dragons and a family. I’m important, there.”

 “You’re important here!”

 “No, I’m really not. Let me demonstrate. How many visitors have I had here?” He shook his head, unsure. “I’d wager it’s none. I bet you’ve never walked in on anyone sitting with me. I don’t have any friends, here. There, well…there were eight people gathered around me trying to take care of me when I was burned. And not because it was their job, but because they care about me. I have a brother! Here the only people who’d notice if I died are you and a guardian whose paycheque would stop coming. Where would you rather be?”

 “And if it isn’t real?”

 “Then I guess I’m the happiest delusional patient in the psych ward.”

 He laughed then, and looked ten years younger.

 “Listen. I know this is a pain in the ass for you. I just want you to know I’m grateful for your help, and if something happens, it’s because of what happened to me over there. It isn’t your fault.”

 He smiled, squeezed my hand, and took his leave as I was getting dizzy. “Say hi to your brother for me.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Three: Rejection and Acceptance

 When I woke, I was in Alistair’s tent. For the second time. I mostly could tell it was his tent on account of the fact that he was lying in it, right beside me. There’s not a lot of room in a bedroll, really, so I was plastered to his side while he was on his back, arms up and hands behind his head. He jumped like he’d been shot when I opened my eyes, and I sat up and scrambled away from him. My skin felt like it was burning again where it had been in contact with him, and though I knew that was all in my head, it made a lick of heat curl through my insides, made me long for…inappropriate, Sierra! I’m sure my face was purple, Alistair’s was as well, and I suddenly wondered how long I’d been lying there. Before he could overcome his shock to say anything, I fled, pushing through the tent flaps, stumbling to my feet and hoping to rush out of camp before having to speak to anyone.

 Aedan’s mouth dropped open when he saw me emerge, and he gave me a sympathetic look and let me run. Leliana happened onto my path just as I was about to escape into the woods, and she grabbed my hand and stopped me.

 “I think perhaps the Maker is sending you a message, no? He has placed you in the handsome templar’s tent twice, now…”

 I got angry. It wasn’t her fault, and I knew it wasn’t, but I was sick of my emotions being jerked around.

 “Your Maker can just keep his opinions on my love life to himself!”

 I yanked my hand out of hers and stormed off. Her hurt expression ate at me, and I knew I’d owe her a huge apology later, but I couldn’t right then. I needed air, and alone time. And preferably somewhere I could scream until hoarse, far enough away that no one would hear me and question my (very questionable) sanity. I strode off into the woods, finding a small clearing close enough to be safe, but far enough that I could melt down unseen. I threw myself down on the ground, eyes closed, fingers massaging my temples as the tears came.

 As I lay there, I heard the sounds of Aedan and then Zevran ease into the clearing, then leave again, giving me my space. The tears finally dried, and I just stared up at the blue sky, feeling wrung out. It had probably been a half hour since I fled from Alistair’s tent, and I had no intention of going back to camp anytime soon. As I lay there, I heard steps I knew could belong to only one person, and I shot up to my feet like I’d been launched from a cannon. No way am I being caught by him lying down! I turned instead and found a rock to sit on, facing away, waiting for his steps to draw close. When he reached me, he fidgeted for a couple of moments, and I just sat quietly. Finally he sighed and stepped into my line of sight. I kept my gaze on my boots.

 "So..."

 "I don't want to talk about it, Alistair."

 "Too bad. You know what Leliana tells me, all the time? I'm too much of a gentleman. So this time, I'm not being gentlemanly. I insist. We are going to talk about this."

 "Alistair, I've told you how I feel. What happened doesn't change that. What more is there to say?"

 "Oh, but you haven't, Sierra, not by a long shot. You've told me what you think, in that logical brain of yours, not what you feel. Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that you almost killed yourself trying to keep me alive, let's start with this: you saved Duncan and Cailan for me. Not for Ferelden, not because of the Blight, but for me."

 I opened my mouth to object, point out all the other reasons I wanted them to live...but he had me. I'd admitted it, and though I’d never planned for him to hear it, I had no argument that would convince him. I finally nodded.

 "Yes." I whispered the admission so quietly that I doubted he could even hear it. The answer, however, was obvious.

 "Why?"

 "I...Cailan's the King, and we need all the Grey Wardens..."

 His hands clamped down on my upper arms and he lifted me off the rock then shook me; gently, considering his strength, but my head still snapped back and forth. "No. Don’t tell me why everyone else is glad they're alive. Why did you do it specifically for me?" I saw Aedan approach silently from behind Alistair, a question in his worried eyes, and I knew if he was there, Zev was too, somewhere. I signaled to my brother with my eyes and my fingers to back off. He did, but only to the edge of the clearing. Alistair set me on my feet, but didn’t let go of my arms.

 "Alistair, I..." I looked into his eyes deeply, possibly for the first time, and suddenly felt like I was drowning in them. I bit my lip, tried to look away, and failed. When had those hazel eyes become so piercing, so mesmerizing? I shook my head as my traitorous mouth spilled the truth I wanted - no, needed - to hide.

 "I didn't want to see you unhappy." I tried to stop myself, but there was too much pressure behind the words and the rest came rushing out. “I couldn't stand to see that look on your face. I know how much Duncan means to you. And I didn't want you to be forced to become King. I wanted you to be free to choose your fate. Plus this way, maybe...maybe you won't have to die. Not that I want anyone to have to die to kill the Archdemon, but...not you.”

 His hands gripped my arms tighter, and I stifled a gasp of pain. He didn’t know his own strength, but I knew he'd leave bruises, and I didn't care. I wanted it to hurt. His voice was low.

 "You gave me all the reasons I should stay away from you, why I shouldn't fall in love. But, Sierra...I don't care about any of that. It was already way too late. Now I need to know.

 "Do you love me?"

 I stared at him, mind reeling, searching for anything that I could say, anything to make this go away, but his eyes caught me again and I knew I couldn't lie. Not to his face. It would break me.

 "Yes.” It burned my mouth to say it. “And that's why I can't...we can't..." He shook me again, and my sentence trailed off.

 Emotions flickered across his face - fear, longing, anger, amazement. It settled on one that could only be described as 'in love': a goofy smile, eyes too bright, skin practically glowing. I gasped as he pulled me closer, seeing the intent in his eyes, and started mouthing the word 'no’. My mouth was dry, my tongue felt sluggish, and I couldn't get the word out, couldn't even shake my head. Agonisingly slowly, he tilted his head down, and our lips met. They barely brushed once, and then he licked his lips and was back for more. He wasn't demanding or rough, just sweet and soft and perfect, and whatever flimsy wall I had tried to construct over my emotions shattered. I could feel him tremble, and I wondered what his self-control was costing him.

 My hands, the only part of my arms that could move, fisted as I struggled against him. I wasn't strong enough to stop him forcibly, but I knew this man. I knew he would stop if he was aware that I wanted him to. He did, pulling back with a shattered breath. The trembling increased.

 I swallowed, trying to get some moisture back into my mouth. All I wanted was to throw myself into his arms. I resisted. Mental images of myself, at home, alone, broken, flashed through my mind, followed by memories of me sobbing into my pillow after the first time I accidentally allowed him to sacrifice himself in the game to kill the Archdemon. At last I realised just how truly selfish I was. I wasn't saving him. I was saving myself. I didn’t want to have to live with myself if I loved him, for real, and he died, or I disappeared for good. He didn't deserve to be stuck with someone like me. A single tear silently slid down my cheek. With a growl, he let go of my arms, turning to walk away, shoulders hunched like he'd been sucker-punched.

 I managed to stay on my feet until he was out of sight, and then Aedan was there to catch me as I collapsed, Zevran behind me to hold me between them. I cried until I couldn't anymore, until there were no more tears. They held me and whispered platitudes which I didn't even hear. They tried, briefly, getting me to talk, but it just brought on a new round of tears every time. Finally back in our tent, I watched Aedan sleep all night, my eyes closing only for seconds the whole time.

 The next day Alistair acted like it had never happened. We left the Dalish, heading towards Denerim. Leliana and I sang, and he barely even acknowledged me. It was worse than if he'd yelled or screamed or...anything. I sucked it up, knowing I'd brought it on myself, that I deserved it. I let him get too close, I was too weak to stop it, and then I couldn't even tell the lie that would keep him away. And still I wanted him, painfully so. Twice while we walked I teared up and had to run off into the bush, pretending to need to pee, so I could cry it out. I'm sure I looked like hell; my eyes were probably red and puffy, my nose swollen from blowing it. I didn't care except to think that Alistair might think I was doing it to make him uncomfortable.

 I realised that without thinking, I had begun teaching Leliana Sheryl Crow songs. Oh, this is going to go over well. I suddenly knew what she'd be singing over the campfire at supper some night. I sighed and carried on - I was halfway through it anyway.

 That evening, Alistair avoided me when we would normally have Templar practice. Wynne sat with me as I worked, patting my knee kindly when I lost my concentration over and over again. When I finally gave up and returned to the campfire, Alistair was laughing at something Leliana said, the two of them leaning in to each other and smiling conspiratorially. It hurt, but I forced myself to smile at them brilliantly before escaping into Aedan's tent. No matter how much it hurt me, I wanted Alistair to be happy. If Leli could give him that, I'd never get in the way. That didn't stop me from crying myself to sleep, clinging to Aedan's hand.

 After a couple of days of walking, we found a campsite not too far from one of Bodahn’s by now famous swimming holes. We split into shifts to head down to the water and clean up, and Leliana and I drew the longest straw – we got to go first. I grabbed some clean clothes, my soap and shampoo, and a comb, and the two of us headed off. I stripped in seconds and submerged, the feeling of the water on my sweaty body invigorating even if it was cold. Leliana joined me and even had me giggling as she sputtered and shivered in the cold water. I got myself scrubbed off, and handed the shampoo to her as I stood up to climb out of the water, just as we heard voices approaching. Male voices, and coming from the wrong direction. I dropped back into the water, just as the owners of said voices came around the rocks piled on the bank. Four young men, I’d guess not quite my age.

 “Well, well, what have we here? Look boys – it seems we caught ourselves some rather large fish before we even cast our lines.”

 Leliana and I traded looks; my expression was frightened but hers was fierce. I admired her aplomb. What is it with random Fereldan men and attempted rape? Are Alistair, Duncan, and Aedan the only non-rapists in the blasted country? I looked longingly at my daggers, still sheathed and in a pile with my clothes on a rock. Leliana spoke.

 “Gentlemen, we didn’t know this was your fishing spot. If you’ll just turn your backs, we’ll get out of your way, no harm done, yes?”

 They actually laughed, but the sort of laugh that didn’t feel funny at all.

 “Orlesian bitch, you think you can just tell us what to do because you’re from Orlais? I think perhaps you need to be taught a lesson.”

 “Now, now. I’m not actually Orlesian. I was a slave there, as a child. I escaped and came here…I just haven’t lost the accent yet. I’m Fereldan!”

 I could tell she was stalling, looking for a way out of the mess we were in. By unspoken agreement we both floated towards the bank furthest from the men, and closer to our things. I decided that if they tried to come in after us, I’d make a run for my daggers. I pulled my feet up under me without lifting myself out of the water, poised to run, and realised Leliana had done the same. The men stood on the bank, none of them seeming willing to get their clothes wet, but they clearly knew that if they stopped to strip, we’d have the opportunity to run. I had just about decided to run anyway – they’d have to swim through the deepest water to get to us, which should have bought us plenty of time, when another voice joined the conversation.

 “I suggest you just leave before things get ugly.” I looked behind me and saw Alistair, in full plate, armed, standing on our side of the bank. His expression was confident and full of rage; he would have scared the hell out of me if I’d been on the receiving end of that look. Apparently six plus feet of armoured, cranky warrior was enough for our would-be rapists as well, and deciding discretion was the better part of valour, they slunk off into the bushes. They’d have run, I was sure, if Alistair had been on their side of the river. I saw a black bird take off from a branch behind Alistair, and then come swooping back, chirping, seeming to urge Leli and me out of the water.

 “Morrigan, cheep once for yes and twice for no.” I’d learned some things from my doctor when trapped between Earth and Thedas. “Are they gone?”

 The bird cheeped once.

 “Is it safe to get out now?” Another cheep. “Alright. Alistair, could you turn around for a second, please?”

 Leliana and I got out of the water and dressed quickly. I was shivering, a combination of fear and cold, and after giving Alistair the best smile I could manage under the circumstances, I thanked him and crawled into my tent, curling up in my bedroll and falling apart. Aedan came in with a bowl of some sort of stew – which I ate mostly for warmth, without tasting much – then stayed with me and held me while I shook.

 I didn’t know what to say, how to express my feelings. I was scared of what could have happened if Alistair hadn’t shown up, embarrassed to have needed to be rescued yet again, and ashamed of myself for being so grateful – and surprised – that despite turning Alistair down, he protected me. A small, cynical part of me thought maybe he was only protecting Leliana, but even I knew that was just jealousy and despair talking. I wanted to run to him, bury my face in his shoulder, and beg him to take care of me forever, but knew I could never do that. I don’t deserve him.

 I guess everyone took turns guarding the swimming hole while everyone else washed up, and we set off early again, figuring we were about a ten day walk from Denerim. A couple of days later, after watching Leliana and Alistair flirt shamelessly as we travelled, I was glad I didn't have a larger mirror. I wasn't sleeping, had barely eaten, and spent every minute of alone time bawling my eyes out and hating myself. I could only imagine how pathetic I looked. At various times, Aedan, Zevran, and Leliana had all tried talking to me about what was happening. I shut them all out – or at least I tried, but Leli was extremely persistent. One day while setting up the tent I shared with Aedan, she showed up, helped me set it up, and pulled me inside, giving me a dirty look.

 "You look like something the cat dragged in, Sierra. This can't continue. Talk."

 "What do you want me to say, Leli? I can't."

 "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

 "Doesn't make it less true."

 "You know, talking to you sometimes makes me want to scream and tear out my hair. Listen. Do you find him attractive?"

 "Have you looked at him, Leli? Where I come from, there's a place called Greece. Hundreds of years ago they used to worship a whole pantheon of Gods - kind of like the Dalish, I guess. One of them was called Adonis - he was the God of beauty and desire. As far as I can tell, they based him off Alistair, and they don't do Alistair justice! Hell yes he's attractive. And I damn well know you're aware of that. I've seen you look at him."

 "Good, jealousy. That I can work with. But humour me for a moment. Is he interesting enough? Smart enough?"

 "He may not be cleverly manipulative, like, say, Zevran, but that doesn't mean he isn't smart. You don't come up with witty one-liners in the worst situations if you're stupid. And not manipulative is a good feature, of course. Leli, none of this is about him."

 "Then what is it about? Tell me."

 "It's...I..."

 "Say it, Sierra. Tell me. By the ass of the Maker himself, why?" She was shouting, and I almost gasped at the obscenity. I scrunched up into the tiniest ball I could fit into, face hiding in my knees.

 "It's me. It's not him. I don't...I don't deserve him. I don't want him to be stuck with someone like me. He should be with someone like you. And I hope you can both be happy."

 "Oho, now we're getting down to it. What exactly is someone like you?"

 "Someone weak. Incapable of taking care of herself. Possibly insane. Someone...feeble." I hissed that last word, the true sting of Shale's nickname finally hitting me. "Someone who can't even lie to him for his own good, who might not even stick around. I can't saddle him with someone like me forever. I won't. I..."

 "Love him."

 I nodded, dejected, and curled in on myself again. She shuffled over and put her arm around my shoulder. "You're not feeble, dearest. You're not a burden. You're a beautiful woman who could have curled up in hysterics until this was all over and no one who knew what was happening would think the worse of you. Most people who’ve been through what you have in the last months would be lucky just to live through it, never mind change the course of history, kill darkspawn, and survive rapists, lecherous Kings, and abominations. You are the strongest person I know, Sierra. That is why he loves you, whether you wanted him to or not. And that's why you should let him." She hugged me one last time, and then left to get supper started.

 I was proven right about the Sheryl Crow music, finally, when Leliana grabbed her Lute during supper and started belting out songs. It was fine for a couple until she came to "Strong Enough".

                 God I feel like hell tonight.

                Tears of rage I cannot fight.

                I'll be the last to help you understand.

                Are you strong enough to be my man?

 

                When nothing's true and nothing's right,

                Just let me be alone tonight.

                Cause you can't change the way I am.

                Are you strong enough to be my man?

 

                Lie to me.

                I promise I'll believe.

                Lie to me.

                But please don't leave.

 

                I have a face I cannot show.

                Make the rules up as I go.

                It's try and love me if you can.

                Are you strong enough to be my man?

 

                When I've shown you that I just don't care,

                When I'm throwing punches in the air,

                When I've broken down and I can't stand,

                Would you be man enough to be my man?

 As usual, all of us listened avidly as Leliana sang. Alistair's face was impassive, Aedan's expression a mix of shock and horror. Everyone else seemed to enjoy it, cheering her on when she finished. I couldn't take it. I'd known it was coming, but still I felt sick. Standing, suddenly, I took off from the small circle of firelight, stumbling and tripping as I hurried into the woods near the camp. Why am I always running off into the woods alone? Drama queen.

 I stopped, probably less than fifty feet from camp, but feeling disoriented in the dark. Unwilling to go any further away from safety, I found myself a mostly dry tree root to sit on and cried for a while. Again. I’m so sick of crying. I finally heard footsteps in the underbrush and knew I'd been found, even as I hoped the ground would swallow me. As the sound grew closer, the blurry shadow resolved itself into Alistair. Of course. Why not? He carried my kinetic flashlight, setting it near me so it cast eerie light through the woods; it stayed lit, so he'd obviously been charging it for a while. He must have realised I was an inch from bolting again. He held his hands up, trying to look non-threatening, while I sat, muscles tensed for a run.

 "Sierra. Please. Don't run, not from me." He took a breath and then just blurted the rest. "I love you. I don't have any idea how to be suave, how to persuade you if you don't want to be convinced, but I love you." He gulped air, expression uncertain in the dim light. "I didn't say that before, and even if you send me away tonight, I wanted you to know.”

 The look on his face was intense, frightened. While part of me thrilled at the declaration, part of me shrivelled and died. I am a terrible person. I pulled my legs up in front of me, hiding my face in my knees. I couldn’t look at him as he continued.

 “You are the most wondrous thing in this dark world, and you have no idea. From the first time I met you…I was grateful, sure, but you were so funny, and always so positive, and you saved the only person in the world who mattered to me. I loved you right then, I think. But I thought you were spoken for. So I suppressed it, content that if I couldn’t be with you, at least you were with someone worthy, someone who deserved you. And then you were suddenly with Aedan. And I was so…angry; I thought you had betrayed Duncan, and if you were going to betray him, dammit, why couldn’t it have been with me?”

 I looked up, shocked. He’d…been interested in me? He kept going, emboldened by my gaze.

 “Every time Cailan, or Teagan, or Zevran looked at you, I wanted to punch someone, and I didn’t. I took it out on you, instead. Made the only woman I’ve ever loved feel like a whore. I heard you crying, that night, in your tent. I did that to you. I wanted to just curl up and die…I couldn’t even apologise. Leliana finally told me. That you weren’t with Duncan, or Aedan, that you were so afraid of being here that you couldn’t sleep; that they made you feel safe. I wanted to be that guy, and instead I was the Maker-damned fool who treated you like a prostitute.

 “And still you were…nice to me. You helped us, when you didn’t have to. You tried to learn to fight, tried to help out more – as if anyone could give us more help than you already had – and you’re still trying to protect me, risking your own life to save mine. When you should have showed me the pointy end of your dagger long ago. I’d have let you, you know. I knew I’d deserved that, not for you to be kind to me.

 “You say you might disappear, you might hurt me - but I'm not giving up on you, on us, because you 'might' hurt me, especially when you've already saved me. I know that not trying would be worse. Maybe we only have a little bit of time, or maybe we have our whole lives...any amount of time would be better than living without you because of fear."

 I stared at him, wondering who this eloquent, sweet man was, and what on earth I did to make him love me. And I couldn't help but believe - the look on his face, the shy, tender smile - that he loved me. He truly did. I gazed into his hazel eyes, and this time I didn't feel like I was drowning - I felt like I was being carried.

 I looked down and saw a rose in his hand. Alistair's rose. Oh no, now I'm screwed.

 "Do you know what this is?"

 I was breaking. I knew it. "Your latest weapon of choice?" I heard my voice saying those flip words, dialogue options I had chosen in the game, and it was so surreal, it felt like I was hearing someone else, watching someone else.

 "Yes, that's right. Watch as I thrash our enemies with the mighty power of floral arrangements! Feel my thorns, darkspawn! I will overpower you with my rosy scent!"

 I couldn't help it. I giggled. On the verge of hysterics, my laugh must have sounded more like a cackle, and he jumped slightly, then let out a quick gasp. He'd pricked himself on a thorn.

 He opened his mouth to speak again, but I held out a hand to forestall it. I saw disappointment flash across his handsome face, until I stood, slowly, and took a step towards him. He watched me take another step, and another, and then I was directly in front of him. I reached out for his hand, feeling his strong fingers, calluses from years of sword practice rough against my own softer skin. Taking the rose from him and setting it down beside the flashlight, I lifted his injured finger to my lips and kissed away the tiny dot of blood that had welled up through the wound. Looking up at him, I stretched out my other arm, cupping his cheek, scratching at the stubble on his chin, ghosting my thumb over his full lips.

 "Are you...are you sure?" I locked gazes with him, expression serious. "Because I'm not strong enough to send you away twice."

 It took a moment for the words to filter through his fear and actually make sense. Instead of a look of hope, or joy, or relief, like I had expected, his eyes just darkened with desire, with possession, and whispering my name, once, almost reverently, he slid his arm around my waist, pulling me up on tiptoes for the most intense kiss of my entire twenty-four years. His lips were moist and soft, his stubble tickled my chin, and my free hand tangled in his short, sandy blond hair. Without parting his lips, without even touching me anywhere other than my hand and my waist, the kiss was nothing like the soft, sweet one from the few days before. It was needy and demanding and heady, and I shivered with the sheer expectation it conveyed.

 If I hadn't known from the moment I woke up and realised I was in Ferelden, I knew it now - I was his. Always and forever, damn the consequences. It didn't come as a surprise.

 I whimpered in a combination of passion and terror, and it finally broke his iron control. His hand released mine and wrapped around the back of my neck, pulling me to him again, a soft groan vibrating across our lips and I couldn't be sure whether it came from him or me. His lips parted gently, and mine rushed to accommodate him without any conscious input. He tasted of cheese (no surprise) but also cinnamon and camp smoke and home. Some part of my brain realised I'd never again call Earth - that pale shadow of an existence I lived there - home. I didn't go home when I blacked out. I was already home, in Ferelden.

 Shakily we pulled back from the kiss, and I looked into his eyes again, their hazel depths warm and welcoming and full of wonder. I thought I might look the same.

 "Maker, Sierra, I...that was..."

 Every time he said my name in that accent it sent a shiver of arousal down my spine. "I agree."

 "Is that what it's always like?"

 "Kissing? Not as far as I know. It's how they describe it in those smutty books Wynne likes. I always thought they were lying."

 “Was that too soon? I don’t want to push you-“

 “I think I’ll need more testing to be sure.”

 His gaze darkened even more, and I shivered. "Hmm. I guess I’ll have to arrange that, won’t I."

 "After everything, I’d be very, very disappointed if you didn’t.” I’d have begged, if he wanted me to. His mouth met mine again, and I was lost, a gasping, panting ball of arousal and raging desire.

 “I could just do that forever.” His face was dreamy, a shy smile curving his generous lips.

 “I won’t decline that offer. But, um…could we get comfortable first?"

 Alistair looked confused, so I turned him and encouraged him to sit on the root I'd cried upon what seemed like a lifetime ago. I briefly contemplated straddling his legs to sit astride his lap, but decided against it in favour of keeping the poor Chantry boy's head from exploding. I sat sideways in his lap instead, and let him pull me into another soul-shattering kiss. When I finally pulled away, panting, I rested my forehead against his, just enjoying the proximity. His fingers explored my face, the curve of my ears, and my hair, and I closed my eyes and hummed with contentment.

 When I thought about how hard I’d fought to stay away from him, I shook my head. I’m an idiot. I looked at him silently for a moment, and finally whispered. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all the wasted time. And for letting you believe, even for one moment, that I didn’t care for you.”

 He kissed me again, and this time it was the sweet, hopeful, soft one our first should have been, had I not been too frightened to respond. It felt like it lasted for days, and I was still disappointed when it ended. He held me in his lap, and I cuddled into his shoulder comfortably.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Four: Complications

 "So...now what?"

 I leaned away again to look up at his face, one eyebrow raised. "Alistair! If you suggest that we skip past the awkward part and go straight into the steamy bits, I'm going to take you up on the offer, out of spite if nothing else. You just be careful what you say next."

 "I...well, the thought did cross my...hey, wait! I told you to stop stealing my lines." We giggled together. "What I actually meant was, what do we tell everyone? They all gossip, you know that."

 "First smart comment and I feed them to the darkspawn." It had to be said. And I wanted to hear him say it again. Yeah, I'm fishing.

 "See? This is why I love you."

 My heart skipped a beat when he said it, leaving me with a queer butterfly sort of feeling that was horribly wonderful. My face turned serious. "I love you, too. I've never said those words before, to anyone. I love you, Alistair."

 "We're quite the pair, then, aren't we? We have to fight for months to admit we love each other, and we can both barely say the words without our heads popping off."

 I grinned. "I've been thinking it long enough, I'm sure I can get comfortable saying it. Eventually."

 "How long, exactly, have you been thinking it?" Even with a shit-eating grin he was gorgeous. Damn you!

 "So, totally, not telling. Ever. And you can just put those puppy-dog eyes away, because it's not going to work. No, no, no!" I closed my eyes, refusing to look, and he broke out laughing.

 "So you didn't really answer the question. About what we're going to do about everyone else."

 "Well, I guarantee Aedan and Zevran already know."

 "They do? Damn that sneaky assassin-"

 I cut him off with a kiss. "No, no. He might be out here too, but I'd bet my boots Aedan is. I'm his sister, remember?"

 "Riiight. I sort of forgot about that for a moment. So...is he going to kill me?"

 The subject of our discussion stepped out of the woods to stand over us, and we both jumped. "Not unless you hurt her, Alistair." Aedan made a serious intimidating face. I giggled and he scowled.

 "I, uh, will try very hard not to."

 "See that you do." Aedan grinned, leaned over and kissed the top of my head, and disappeared again.

 "Does he know how creepy that is when he does that?"

 "I heard that!" came floating back to us faintly.

 "Sod off, brother dearest!"

 We listened until the laugh faded into the woods, then looking at each other, made an unspoken agreement to whisper.

 "I suspect Leliana knows. That song tonight was a setup if I've ever seen one."

 "Yeah...about that. The flirting? Utterly faked. I was upset and sort of...whined at her, and she suggested jealousy might work. It was...stupid. And it totally failed; you didn't get jealous."

 "Oh, yes I did. I wanted to rip her hair out. But...if she'd made you happy..." I trailed off. "It hurt, but you deserve it."

 "And you don't?" He saw the truth written on my face when he tilted my chin up so I couldn't hide. "Oh, Sierra. You do. And I'm going to do my damnedest to prove it to you.” He pulled me into a tight hug, and I realised we fit together, somehow, my head tucked into the curve where his neck met his shoulder, his arms wrapped around me. I was quite content to just sit like that for as long as he'd let me. Suddenly we were in the dark as the flashlight lost its charge.

 "The song was a setup,” he confirmed. “So was your conversation in your tent earlier."

 "What?" That got my attention. I sat up, frowning.

 "She...I didn't realise it until after, but she made sure my tent was close enough to hear what you guys talked about. I'm so sorry. I wouldn't have eavesdropped, really, it was all Leliana."

 "So you...heard all that?" I was glad the flashlight had died, so he couldn't see how purple my face had become.

 "...yeah."

 "Oh, uh. Now that's embarrassing. I'm going to kill Leliana. You weren't supposed to hear that."

 "So I gathered. I'm glad I did though, and I know why she did it. My, uh, self-esteem wasn't exactly doing well - you didn't seem to be getting jealous the way she said you would, and you worked so hard to avoid me, and...I started to think that maybe you were just trying to let me down slowly, that you just didn't want me..."

 "I admitted that I loved you!"

 He shrugged. "I know. I just...was so down on myself, all of a sudden, I didn't believe you, I guess. Leliana was trying to convince me, and it wasn't working, so...she arranged that little tent chat."

 "I'm still going to kill her."

 "Seems fair. Although...it worked. I would never have had the confidence to come out here, otherwise."

 "Fine. I'll give her a hug, then I'll kill her." We both chuckled and returned to talking about our companions.

 "Wynne isn't stupid, so if she doesn't know, she will in five minutes, even if we tried to hide it."

 I nodded. "Agreed. And the rest aren't going to care one way or the other."

 "So we just...tell everyone?"

 "Nah. We just act like nothing happened, like we've been together forever, and act stupid if anyone draws attention to it."

 He grinned. "Sounds like fun. But...do we have to go back yet?"

 Even in the dark I could feel his puppy dog eyes on me.

 "No, love. Not yet." I let myself be pulled into another kiss, moaning softly as his hands returned to my hair, kneading my scalp. His tongue touched my lip softly. I pulled back, briefly channeling Bridget Jones. "Nice men don't kiss like that!"

 "Oh yes they sodding do," he growled, and pulled me back in again as I giggled.

 After an eternity, certain that my lips were swollen from kissing and my hair disastrous from him running his fingers through it, I suggested we head back to camp. He sighed heavily, but agreed. I grabbed the rose - Alistair admitted he’d bribed Morrigan to preserve it after Lothering - and the flashlight, and we carefully worked our way back to camp. We had to climb over multiple roots and fallen trees - how I'd gotten through here in the dark without falling was a mystery - and Alistair held my hand, helping me over each one. I was practically dizzy at how fast I'd gone from lonely and heartbroken to in love and taken care of.

 Everyone was still gathered around the campfire, and Alistair held my hand firmly as we walked up. He encouraged me to sit on the only unoccupied log, and he sank to the ground at my feet. I took my hand from his and set it on his broad shoulder; he tilted his head slightly to brush his cheek against my arm. No one said a word, and we settled and got drawn into listening to Leliana sing. Another one I’d taught her, and unsurprisingly appropriate – originally by Dusty Springfield, I always thought of the Vonda Shepard version.

 I don't know what it is that makes me love you so.
                I only know I never want to let you go.
                'Cause you've started something,
                Oh, can't you see?
                That ever since we met, you've had a hold on me.
                It happens to be true, I only want to be with you.

 

                It doesn't matter where you go or what you do.
                I want to spend each moment of the day with you.
                Oh, look what has happened with just one kiss.
                I never knew that I could be in love like this.
                It's crazy but it's true, I only want to be with you.

 

                You stopped and smiled at me,
                And asked me if I'd care to dance.
                I fell into your open arms,
                And I didn't stand a chance.

                Now listen honey,
                I just want to be beside you everywhere.
                As long as we're together, honey, I don't care.
                'Cause you've started something,
                Oh, can't you see?
                That ever since we met, you've had a hold on me.
                No matter what you do, I only want to be with you.

                It happens to be true, I only want to be with you.

 

I grinned at Leliana and stuck my tongue out; she almost missed her next line. Alistair squeezed my hand, and I knew he was listening to the lyrics too.

 At bedtime, he walked me to my tent - sort of hilarious, as his was only three feet away - and paused. I blushed, he blushed, and we both stood sort of awkwardly until he made a move. He lifted my chin, leaned in slowly, and kissed me oh-so-softly on the lips once, and then again. I set my hands against his chest, feeling the warmth of him, and moaned very quietly with pent-up desire.

 "I love you, Sierra. Maker, it feels good to say that. I love you."

 "I love you too, Alistair."    

 "I am a lucky man."

 It took me at least an hour for the arousal and butterflies in my stomach to calm enough for me to fall asleep. I wondered if the kissing had had such a profound physical impact on Alistair, which naturally led to me thinking about him, maybe naked, aroused, and…inappropriate, Sierra! I was still fidgeting when Aedan crawled into our tent, and he grinned at me, waggling his eyebrows. Knowing Alistair’s tent was close enough to hear anything that was said, I shushed him with one finger over my lips, trying to prevent him from embarrassing me any further. I shouldn’t have bothered; my brother was a practical joker, and I should have known there was no chance I’d escape this without harassment. He tugged his bedroll over closer to mine, and encouraged me to snuggle up to his side when he lay down beside me.

 “So. When is the wedding going to be?”

 We heard a surprised ‘urk’ sound that tried to hide under a cough from the tent next door, and Aedan grinned broadly. I punched him in the side.

 “Aedan! Not funny.”

 “Who says I’m being funny? You’re a Cousland, Sierra. You have a reputation to uphold.”

 I laughed. “No one in Ferelden even knows I exist outside of this group. I’m pretty sure my reputation will be fine.”

 “Still! No one can besmirch the honour of my sister, without-“

 “No!” I could hear more choking from the tent next door. “No besmirching. I don’t want to talk about besmirching!” At this I could hear giggles from the opposite side, and I realised I hadn’t done very well at self-regulating my volume. I face-palmed, and the giggle became a guffaw.

 “Shut up, Leliana! You’re already on my shit list!” Chuckles started breaking out all over camp, even Sten’s deep rumble obvious under the cacophony. “I hate you all!”

 Alistair kept quiet throughout this, and I couldn’t decide whether to be annoyed or grateful that he hadn’t added his blushing Chantry-raised embarrassment to the debacle.

 The laughter finally died down and everyone settled in to sleep. Aedan stayed right by my side, one arm around me protectively, and I only spent a little bit of time wishing for a different arm around me before falling asleep myself. I woke early, needing to use the facilities, such as they were, and I realised I’d been so wrapped up in Alistair that I hadn’t gone pee or brushed my teeth or anything at bedtime. How is it possible for one man to addle me so completely? I’ve never been one of those girls. So embarrassing!

 I wriggled out of Aedan’s grasp and snuck out of the tent with my little bag of personal supplies. Alistair was at the fire with Wynne and Leliana, slumped on a cut log. He sat up straighter when he saw me emerge, shining a brilliant smile in my direction, but before I could even return it his face fell and the smile was replaced with a wooden, neutral look. It didn’t take much to see the anxiety behind his eyes. Ah. Either worried I’ll have next morning regrets, or worried I’m upset about the teasing last night. Or both. I knew how to fix that.

 He stood as I approached the campfire. I kept my face neutral, and stopped a few feet away from him, not taking my eyes off him as I spoke.

 “Wynne?”

 “Yes, dear?” She looked up from her book.

 “I owe you an apology.”

 “For what?”

 “I lied to you.”

 “You did?” She looked confused. “When?”

 “Back on the boat from the Circle Tower to Redcliffe.”

 Her confusion cleared and she smiled tolerantly. “What lie did you tell me?”

 “In my own defense, I didn’t know it was a lie back then.”

 “Of course you didn’t, dear.”

 “I told you I’d never be in a relationship with anyone from Thedas.”

 “I recall that, yes.”

 “I lied.” With that, I strode confidently up to Alistair, dropping my bag on a nearby rock. I reached up to grab his shoulder as I stepped up onto the log he’d just vacated. His height was such that I could just barely look him in the eye from the top of the log. I put my other hand on his cheek, leaned in, and kissed him soundly. There was barely a moment’s hesitation before I felt him respond, wrapping his arms about my waist and pulling me in closer as his lips started moving against mine. I broke off before it could get inappropriate for public consumption, smiling up at him. I completely ignored the cheers and applause from Leliana at the campfire.

 “Good morning, Alistair.”

 “Good morning, Sierra.” His eyes twinkled, and I shivered as my name rolled off his tongue. Damn accent. Gets me every time! He kissed my forehead softly, and I closed my eyes in contentment.

 “I need to, uh, do something. I have morning breath. I’ll be right back.” I pulled away from him, stepped down lightly, grabbed my bag, and headed off in the direction of the stream. I left him there to put up with the teasing for once.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Five: We’re having a picnic...

 Once finished with my personal morning details, I returned to the campfire. Alistair was about to stand up, no doubt to offer me his seat, but I shook my head, pushing down on his shoulder, and then just parked myself in his lap. I’d never have been brave enough to do that before, but I’d never been so utterly confident about how someone felt about me before. Besides, he had literally carried me in his arms for hours – I was pretty sure he could take my weight. Leliana shot me a grin as Alistair flushed bright red, and I giggled back. Once settled, I turned to her and Wynne, and Zevran who had just emerged from his tent as well.

 “Alright. Out with it.”

 They looked at me, confused, and Leliana spoke. “Out with what?”

 “The teasing. The ‘I told you so’s. The lewd comments. Get them out of your system, would you? Speak now or forever hold your peace.”

 Wynne rolled her eyes good-naturedly, and continued reading her book. Leliana rubbed her hands together gleefully, and Zevran sat nearby with a mischievous look on his face. Leli had just opened her mouth to speak when a voice from the tents behind me piped up.

 “Wait! If it’s a free-for-all teasing session for my sister, you can’t get started without me!” We all laughed as Aedan stumbled out of the tent we shared.

 Seeing me sitting in Alistair’s lap, he drew up short, and I saw his eyes flash from me to Zevran and back. He paused, just for a moment, and then seemed to make a decision. Taking a deep breath, Aedan sat down beside Zevran, drew the shorter man’s face towards himself, and kissed him. I think he thought everyone would gasp in surprise, because when he pulled out of the brief kiss, his eyes flew open and he examined each of us in turn. No one looked shocked, and in fact Leliana and Alistair both had pleased smiles on their faces. Aedan’s eyes narrowed.

 “You all knew?”

 Leliana, Zevran, and Alistair all responded at once.

 “We’re not blind!” “Of course they knew, amore mio.” “How dumb do you think we are?”

 I howled with laughter, and Zevran snickered in my direction. Aedan’s face was sort of purple, and he shot me a nasty look.

 “I didn’t tell anyone! Don’t look at me.”

 Wynne piped up. “If you didn’t want everyone to know, dear, you could have tried to be a little more… discreet.”

 Aedan shook his head, looking despondent. “So we could have just…you wouldn’t have cared?”

 “Well, we’d have teased you. Like we will now.” Leliana looked smug, and we all laughed.

 The good-natured banter continued all morning while we took a much-needed break. Even Sten didn’t complain too much about the delay, and he and Shale wandered off to explore around the camp a bit. Aedan watched them go, his expression both speculative and disturbed.

 I laughed. “I don’t think so, brother. But then again, who knows?”

 Aedan shuddered and muttered under his breath. I couldn’t hear the words, exactly, but the tone was obvious. I was quite certain he’d said “Maker help us.”

 Returning to the fire after a trip to the stream again, I found Alistair and Leliana talking together quietly, looking secretive. Alistair’s face was red, and Leliana touched his arm and then said something that made him laugh. My jealousy flared, but I was able to squash it. I trusted them both. Nothing was going on. Seeing me, Alistair wandered over with a sweet smile on his handsome face. He held out his hand somewhat hesitantly, and I gave him mine, fingers intertwining instinctively. He had a bag over his shoulder, his sword and shield slung on his back.

 “Come on.” He tugged on my hand, and I followed him out of camp. We hit the stream and then followed it up a ways, until we found a little clearing right nearby. He let go of my hand, placed his shield and sword on a rock, and then started rummaging through the bag.

 He pulled out a blanket, which he spread on the ground, and then sat down, patting the area beside him. “Picnic?”

 I smiled down at him and plopped down on the blanket. He pulled out some bread, some cheese, and the ubiquitous jerky.

 “I wish I could have brought something special to eat, or at least some wine or something, but…”

 I interrupted. “It’s perfect. Thank you, Alistair.”

 “I thought…we could spend some time together. Just us.”

 “I’d like that.”

 We sat on the blanket, eating lunch, talking about nothing much, until the last of our meal was cleaned up. Alistair reclined back on the blanket beside me, and I lay down beside him, shoulders just touching.   Our hands found each other again.

 “I thought you might be angry with me this morning.”

 “Why?”

 “The teasing? I thought you might be upset. I didn’t say anything, didn’t protect you.”

 “Oh, I didn’t mind.” I blushed a little bit. “I kind of liked it, actually.”

 “You did?” He rolled to his side, head propped on one arm, watching me.

 I nodded. “I’ve never had anyone care enough about me to tease me, before now. I probably could have gone to school with no pants on by mistake, and no one would have noticed, never mind teased me about it. The teasing doesn’t bother me – at least it means they care.”

 “They do. We do. There isn’t a person back there who wouldn’t put their life on the line to protect you, Sierra.”

 “I know.” My blush deepened. “And I feel the same way. I’ve never had a family before. I like it, even if it means I have to put up with some teasing.”

 “Well, I’m sorry anyway, for what that’s worth.”

 “Oh, don’t worry Alistair. You’ll get your fair share. Just wait until Wynne tries to tell you where babies come from.”

 “Wha-? Babies?”

 “Wynne’s right. You are cute when you’re all red and mottled.”

 Alistair flopped back down with an exasperated sigh. “Maker, what is with you women?”

 I giggled. “Do you still like me?” I went up onto my elbow to look down at him.

 “No, Sierra. I don’t like you. I love you.”

 “You’re just hoping I’ll kiss you.”

 “Not just…but I mean, if you wanted to-“

 I leaned down and softly pressed my lips to his. It was interestingly different being able to look down on him, and I spent a few minutes teasing him, dropping tiny kisses on him quickly, then nibbling his lower lip for a brief moment before backing off again. Finally with a growl he grabbed me, and flipped us both over, so I was on my back and he leaned over me. He pressed me down and kissed me firmly, his tongue tasting my lip, and then, when I opened my mouth, plunging in to meet my own. I moaned, aroused and amused, letting him be in control, my hands fisting in his shirt.

 Something occurred to me, and I nudged him to stop. “Hey, you’re wearing a shirt.”

 He panted softly, breath warm on my ear. “Um, yeah…shouldn’t I be?”

 “No, I just mean no armour.”

 “Ah, yes…Leliana convinced me that plate armour wasn’t exactly romantic.”

 “Too bad she didn’t say anything to me! I could have worn clothes too. Instead of armour.”

 “I don’t mind. Your armour is…uh, well, it looks…nice on you.”

 “I’m gonna go with ‘thanks’, and not examine the rest of that statement too much.”

 “I appreciate that.”

 He kissed me again, and I didn’t think for a while. After a bit, he rolled onto his back again beside me.

 He spoke. “So can I ask you something?”

 “Anything.” I rolled over to my side again, admiring his profile.

 “Really? Anything? Huh. I’ll get back to that. But what I wanted to ask about was Zevran.”

 “That I wasn’t expecting. What about him?”

 “I just don’t understand. You seem to actually…like him.”

 I laughed. “I do. But it’s because I understand him.”

 “How could anyone understand him? He’s so aggressively…I don’t know. Sexual. It’s creepy. I mean I guess Aedan doesn’t mind it because he actually wants to be seduced by him, but…how does it not drive you crazy?”

 “Hmm. How do I explain this? He’s…he’s like where I came from. You have to understand what life is like, there. It’s so busy, everyone running around and working too much and not taking time to talk or even see others. They hide behind machines, even use them to communicate – I’ve seen two people sit side-by-side and use their machines to talk to each other instead of turning their heads and speaking. People are so…lost. They don’t know who they are, or what they’re supposed to be. They’re in pain and they don’t even know why. So some of them overcompensate. They go out at night to have anonymous sex because at least then they can feel something other than empty. They use sex to sell things, they sell their bodies without even thinking that they’re doing it. Some of the women wear these incredibly revealing, skimpy clothes, just because someone might notice them, finally. Morrigan would fit right in. It’s all a mask to hide what’s really happening.

 “Zevran is like that. He uses sex to protect his feelings, to avoid getting hurt. He makes everything a perverted amusement. Even the assassin stuff. It’s a costume. And he does it for shock value; if you’re so busy being horrified by what comes out his mouth, you’re less likely to question his motives, notice his pain. So I can understand where it’s coming from. Honestly, he wouldn’t know what to do if a tenth of those he propositioned said yes…behind the mask, he’s still that six year-old boy who grew up without a mother, who was bought and paid for by bastards who tried to steal his soul.

 “You two aren’t so different, Alistair. You use sarcasm to do the same thing he uses sex for. The difference is you were raised by people who, while they treated you abominably, had morals, and so do you. Zevran probably never even met anyone with morals until he met us.

 “Besides, the suggestive stuff he does? It’s not very over-the-top compared to people where I came from. If I went out on a weekend dancing, someone would do something far more inappropriate than what Zev tries to pull. So he doesn’t shock me. It’s actually kind of funny.”

 He was quiet for a bit, pensive, and I spent my time openly staring at Alistair. From his somehow always-perfect hair, to his ever-present stubble, strong jaw, and muscular body, he was a dream come true. He could make a nun think twice about her vow of chastity. And he had no idea.

 “You said ‘some women’ dress scandalously and have casual sex. And…what about you?”

 “Oh, no. Not me. I uh…well, this body isn’t quite like mine, back there. I was considered ugly, there. No one wanted to see me in skimpy clothes. I was always quite modest.”

 “This body? Your body there is different?”

 “Yeah, well…it’s a much more sedentary existence. I looked sort of similar, but definitely had more insulation.” I patted my smooth stomach.

 “And that was enough for you to be considered ugly?”

 “Well…it changes how you look, when you’re fat. Even my face looked different. And the standards of beauty there are very different than here. It’s all about being skinny and wearing tight, revealing clothes. They don’t even really care what your face looks like – it’s easy enough to change that, between make-up and cosmetic surgery…”

 He looked disgusted. “I think I’d hate where you come from. I don’t care if you were twice as big around as you are now, you’d still be beautiful.”

 “You, sweet man, are biased.” I leaned over and kissed his cheek softly. “But thanks.”

 “So, if you weren’t into the revealing clothes and anonymous sex, have you...ever…”

 “What? Have I ever…had a good pair of shoes? Seen a basilisk? Ate jellied ham? Licked a lamppost in winter?”

 “You know, it’s really unfair that you know all my lines.”

 “I’m very sorry, love. But the answer is, yes I have. Once. It was…awkward.”

 “Can I ask?”

 “Are you sure you want to?”

 “I…yes, I think I am.”

 I sat up, facing him, and reached out and took his hand again. “It was nothing really to write home about. Honestly…I was a dumb kid, and so was he; we were friends, and I knew I was about to be forced to move again, because my foster-mother, the only one who’d ever cared about me, was ill. We were just…fumbling in the dark, really. And then I moved, and I never saw him again. My next home was…well, it was bad. I moved three times after that, until I left the foster system. And after that I was so busy, working to pay for my education, going to school, and then trying to pay off the debt I’d accrued during my schooling…”

 “I’m sorry, Sierra.”

 “Don’t be. I honestly didn’t feel like I was missing anything, until…well, you happened.”

 “I just can’t imagine what it was like, to have grown up like that. I mean, Isolde hated me, and I hated the Chantry, but at least I wasn’t blown about like a leaf in the wind.”

 “Sort of normal, there, though. Even for people with families. I like it here better. And…I get to have a new start with all that now. I never…I never thought I’d be with anyone, never mind someone like you.”

 “What does that mean?”

 “You know. You overheard me, yesterday…”

 “It never hurts to hear it again.” He grinned up at me.

 “Someone…kind. Sweet. Funny. Strong. A real-life hero. Gorgeous…you name it. Actually, this will tell you. Where I came from, you have a fan club. Several, actually.”

 “A what?” He blushed.

 “Yep. Thousands of women who get together and talk about how they wish you were real, and how they wish they could meet someone like you. If anyone back there figures out where I am, I’ll probably be assassinated by some raving fan-girl on the off-chance that whoever kills me gets to take my place…”

 He was almost purple now. “Tell me you’re joking. Me? I’m not one to complain about ridiculously good fortune, but I don’t deserve to be with you, never mind have a fan club.”

 “That’s one of the things everyone loves, Alistair. You don’t even know how desirable you are.”

 I leaned in and kissed him again, hoping I could show him how I felt that way. I was suddenly very passionate, needing him to understand. Without breaking the kiss, I managed to find my way from my butt to my knees, leaning over him, reaching one hand around to hold him to me by the hair, the other stroking his cheek. His hands came up from underneath, one settling on my waist, the other crushing me down to his chest. Arousal poured down to my centre like little licks of flame and I moaned, helpless.

 Finally breaking away, we both panted for breath. I need to stop, or I’m going to rip his clothes off on the spot. Down girl! I concentrated on breathing, sitting up again to give myself some space. He looked dazed, a goofy grin plastered to his face, lips slightly swollen from our activities. My gaze travelled over his still form, eventually landing on the obvious bulge in his trousers. Not just me then. Good to know. I fought the urge to touch him, to beg him to touch me, and won. Part of me was disappointed.

 “It is very, very” hard – don’t say hard “difficult to keep my wits around me when I’m with you, Chantry boy.”

 “All part of my defense mechanism, my dear. If you’re witless, you won’t be able to get a plan together to ditch me.” He grinned, laughing at his own joke, but it was obvious he wasn’t entirely kidding. Really? How can he still be insecure?

 “Alistair.” I pulled him up so he was facing me, then knelt beside him so we were face to face. I put one hand on each cheek to make sure he was paying attention. “I will never ditch you. Never on purpose. I don’t know what will happen to either of us, and maybe this will end in heartbreak, but I’m not going to leave you if I have any say in the matter. You’re stuck riding this tiger with me, buddy.”

 He leaned forward and kissed me breathless. “I don’t even know what to say. Except, I guess, I love you too. But um…what’s ‘riding a tiger’ mean?”

 I laughed. “It’s a saying from where I grew up. Are there tigers in Thedas? Huge, predatory cats? Fast, dexterous, fierce…been known to eat people? Anyway, the point is that riding a tiger, as challenging as that is, isn’t the hard part. The hard part is that once you’re on the tiger, you have no choice but to keep on riding, even if you don’t like where it’s headed, because if you try to get off, you get eaten.”

 “You plan on eating me if I try to get off? Did I seriously hear that correctly?”

 I howled with laughter, and Alistair laughed with me. “I’m not the tiger! Goof.” I giggled again. “Zevran would be so proud right now.” I pulled myself together. “Besides. If I were you, I wouldn’t tease me about eating you.” I put on my best, predatory evil grin, and licked my lips slowly just for effect. The look on his face was priceless – like a deer in headlights. A very aroused, very red-faced deer.

 I leaned in, eyes locked with his, and just before our lips met, I gently stroked his bottom lip with the very tip of my tongue. He groaned and crushed me to him, pulling me into his lap and attacking my lips. How long we sat like that, talking and giggling and making out like teenagers, I don’t really know. It felt wonderful. We didn’t really get past kissing – it was too new, too sweet, and though part of me truly did want to devour him, I didn’t want to push it. So I moaned and wriggled on his lap and lost myself in Alistair.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Six: Ambush and Aftermath

 We wandered back to camp for supper, as we didn’t have enough food in our picnic to stay away, and enjoyed more general teasing and banter while eating. Aedan and Zevran actually took the brunt of the teasing, much to my enjoyment. I didn’t think I’d ever seen Aedan blush so red. I refused to budge from Alistair’s lap, sitting with my back to his chest, his arms around me, and his chin on my shoulder. Periodically he would turn and kiss me on my cheek or whisper something in my ear, and that kept me so distracted I barely noticed any teasing that came our way. At bedtime, he walked me to my tent again, and it was less awkward this time; he kissed me deeply, leaving me breathless yet again. As I lay in my bedroll, frustrated and horny, I desperately hoped he would make a move soon, or my head might explode. At least this time I managed to pee and brush my teeth before bed!

 We continued on to Denerim in the morning, but suddenly travelling was a whole new thing. I walked hand-in-hand with Alistair, and got to talk with him the entire time, instead of avoiding him like I usually did. He was hilarious, his ‘witty one-liners’ keeping me in stitches most of the time that we walked. It made the day pass faster, and the little rest we’d taken the day before meant we actually made better time than normal. We chatted with Aedan, Zevran, Leliana, and Wynne periodically as we walked, but never let go of each other’s hand. It was a heady feeling. He’s mine. I’m his. What did I do to deserve this?

 Camp got back to a semblance of normal, and I started sparring again with Aedan, with Zevran’s help and advice. Alistair looked pretty tense until it became obvious that Aedan was pulling his punches, not allowing me to get hurt, and Zevran even kept his hands to himself. Will wonders never cease? After supper, Alistair and I decided to train a bit. I got my focus fast, was able to do the exercises he’d showed me, and his pleased smile was worth every ounce of concentration I’d spent and the headache I knew I’d have afterwards. It was a little more distracting trying to practice while holding Alistair’s hand, sitting where I could feel the heat radiating off his body, but I managed not to jump him and called it a victory. After practice, we cuddled and kissed for a while before reluctantly parting to go to sleep.

 The next day brought the ambush from Marjolaine’s hired goons that I’d been waiting for. I huddled in a ball, frightened as usual, while the rest of my companions decimated the little group of mercenaries. We got the address to Marjolaine’s hideout, and Alistair rushed over to me to make sure I was okay. Which, of course I was – it’s hard to get hurt when you lay down and cry every time violence breaks out. I was embarrassed; he thought it was sweet. He’d have cuddled me, but his armour was covered in blood spatter and I had to look away until he’d cleaned up. Zevran rolled his eyes theatrically in my direction, but I noticed he hadn’t wasted any time getting the gore off his own armour. I stuck my tongue out at him and earned myself a chuckle.

 As we walked, Alistair, holding my hand, slowed us until we were a dozen steps behind everyone, then pitched his voice low.

 “I’m sorry, Sierra. I hate it when you see me like…that.”

 I looked at him quizzically. “Pardon? Like what?”

 “Well, I know the violence makes you sort of sick. I hate the thought of you associating me with that. I wish you didn’t have to see me fighting. And stuff.”

 “Oh, honey. I’m not bothered by it. I may abhor the violence, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want you to defend us when we’re attacked. I don’t think you will turn into some sort of psycho and go murder people in their sleep, or anything. I don’t have anything against self-defense. I’m just too much of a pansy to help out, which is disgusting, actually. I need to harden up a bit, I know that.”

 “Don’t. Please.” His expression was sincere, his hazel eyes piercing. “You wouldn’t be you if the bloodshed didn’t bother you. I don’t want you to become that cynical person who is immune to it. I wish I hadn’t. It weighs on me, even when I know it’s necessary to kill someone to defend us. I don’t want you to live with it. Let us defend you.”

 I pulled him down for a kiss, and felt his armoured arms wrap around my waist gently. “So what you’re saying is you have a thing for pansies?”

 “Just one.”

 I gave him an Eskimo kiss, rubbing his nose with mine, which made him chuckle, and then took his hand again and pulled him along to catch up. “I haven’t agreed not to try to learn how to defend, just so we’re clear.”

 He rolled his eyes. “I’m aware.”

 I actually skipped for most of the rest of the day, much to everyone’s amusement. Alistair just grinned at me indulgently, which got him teased by Aedan and Zevran, but he didn’t even seem to notice. And I certainly didn’t care. I hadn’t been that happy since…ever, actually. Even Morrigan’s dirty look when I bounced around her at lunch couldn’t dampen my mood, especially since I was half-convinced it was fake. And I was pretty sure the scorching kisses Alistair kept laying on me periodically when he thought no one was looking were causing dampening elsewhere…so inappropriate, Sierra!

 We made decent time over the next couple of days, even if I got definitely insufficient sleep. Between staying up late cuddling and canoodling with Alistair, and then lying awake in my tent, horny and unable to do anything about it because of Aedan right next to me, I was strongly wishing for a Diet Coke to give me the caffeine boost I needed. Coffee had never been my thing, and the tea in Ferelden tasted largely like ass. Despite that, leaving my tent every morning to see Alistair waiting for me with a smile that could light up the night sky kept me energetic and perky. I guess love really is all you need. I had to admit I was jealous of the Grey Warden stamina though – Alistair didn’t even look tired, though I assumed he’d been getting as little sleep as I. Maybe more though, if he was able to take care of the…oh, that’s a mental image I don’t need right now Sierra!

 We hit one darkspawn patrol on our way to Denerim. Aedan and Alistair had been feeling a group of them slowly coming closer for hours, and realising we weren’t going to be able to skirt around them, we decided to ambush them for once. Morrigan scouted around and found the darkspawn, then led us to a defensible position in the trees where we could wait for them. I was behind everyone, protected; Morrigan had changed into a spider in the trees somewhere, and Zev was hiding somewhere to hit them from behind. Alistair pulled me directly behind him; had it been practical, I think he’d have had me holding onto the back of his armour the entire time. It was sweet, but still frustrating.

 Finally the group of darkspawn emerged in front of us, somewhat shocked to see our entire group arrayed out waiting for them. They outnumbered us, but that wasn’t uncommon, and didn’t really concern me. What did concern me was a large group of archers in the back, and the aura of magic I could feel prickling my spine, even though I couldn’t see the source.

 “Emissary. Maybe more than one.” I rubbed my arms, trying to settle the goose bumps that had formed. It was definitely a stronger aura than just Wynne by herself.

 Leliana immediately began picking off archers, while Wynne protected the group from their arrows. The front line smashed into the melee-weapon-wielding darkspawn, both genlocks and hurlocks, and Morrigan and Zevran came out of hiding to bite into their backs. Useless, frustrated, I scanned the field hoping to at least pinpoint the caster before he could throw any major offensive spells. Frustrated, I slipped out from between Alistair and Wynne, ignoring Alistair’s hissed warning. I snuck into the bushes, watching closely for any signs that the darkspawn noticed my movements; it seemed they were still ignoring me. I crept forwards, past those engaging Alistair, past Zevran, and over towards the archers, where I could feel the aura emanating.

 Leliana had done a good job; only two archers remained, and one of them dropped with a well-placed arrow as I snuck around it. I pulled my daggers and slashed at the other archer, jumping out of the way and avoiding the spray of blood as it fell. I finally found the Emissary, huddled behind the body of one of the archers. I wasn’t sure why it hadn’t attacked, but it was casting something, chanting in a strange tongue, and I assumed it was either protecting itself or buffing its companions. It didn’t seem to see me approach, and without even thinking, I reached out with my mind and seized its mana the way I had thought I had done previously with the Emissaries at Ostagar and with Uldred and friends. But instead of releasing it in an explosion accidentally, I continued to hold the mana as I pressed my dagger against the darkspawn’s throat.

 The creature hissed at me as its eyes widened in shock.

 “Hello pretty.”

I forced it to stand, and, still holding its mana, I marched it back towards my companions at knife point. It tried to talk to me in its strange hissing voice, but I ignored it. I wanted to see if Alistair could do what I was doing, and without risking harm to one of our mage companions, this was the best way that suddenly presented itself.

 My friends were mopping up the rest of the darkspawn as I approached with my hostage. Suddenly the creature, still without mana, was surrounded by half a dozen blades in addition to my own.

 “Sierra!” Alistair shouted, and I winced slightly. “Andraste’s flaming sword, what do you think you are doing?”

 “Look, yell at me later. I need to show you this. You asked me to train you if I figured out how to do what I do. Well, this is the only way I could come up with. Can you feel this?” Somehow, I released a tiny trickle of mana back into the Emissary. Alistair’s brow wrinkled as he concentrated on what I was doing.

 “I can…how are you doing that?”

 I pulled the tiny amount of mana back into myself as he paid attention, and then did it again. Surrounded as it was, the creature didn’t even try to take advantage of the trickle of mana, but just sort of slumped its shoulders and stood still.

 “Can you feel it? Can you try?” I released a tiny amount of mana, and watched as Alistair was able to get a handle on it. Slowly I transferred more and more of the power, until we each held half.

 Alistair’s eyes were wide, his mouth open in wonder. “I don’t think the Chantry knows about this ability.”

 Aedan snorted, and traded a grin with me. “I vote we don’t tell them.”

 “Okay, so…now what? What do you do with it, once you have it like this?” Alistair still looked dumbfounded.

 I grimaced. “That part I’m not totally clear on, to be honest. It’s always been borne of necessity, so I never had a chance to see what I was doing. But after practicing with you, I thought I could do this on purpose to show you, and I was right.”

 “So what are we going to do with all this?” Alistair gestured, helplessly, and I shrugged.

 “No idea.”

 Aedan spoke. “Kill it and then we don’t have to worry about it?”

 Before anyone could even reply, Sten had swung his massive great sword over his head and decapitated the Emissary. He’d aimed well; not a drop of blood landed on any of us. I turned to wipe my blades off, when I was suddenly grabbed by two different sets of hands, one on each arm. I looked up to see Aedan on one side, Alistair on the other, both with very, very angry expressions.

 I tried to forestall the scolding. “Hey! I’m probably safer not standing with you guys, okay? They can’t see me, so my chances of being hit by a stray arrow go down. And we needed that Emissary dead.”

 Aedan ran one hand through his hair roughly, then started rubbing his temples like he had a headache.

 “I can’t even talk about this right now. But this conversation isn’t over.”

 He turned and walked away, and Zevran fell into step beside him as they disappeared through the trees. Prince, oblivious to his master’s distress, licked my hand with a bloody muzzle and then trotted away after them. Disgusted, I looked around for something to wipe the mess off my hand – and my daggers – when I met Alistair’s eyes again.

 His expression was haunted, and before I could do anything else, he grabbed me and crushed me to his chest. I relaxed into the hug and sighed, hugging him back despite the gore it smeared across my armour. His voice was hoarse when he finally spoke.

 “For my sake – please, please don’t do that again?”

 I hugged him tighter. “I can’t promise that. But I can promise to try to stay safe. I wasn’t in any danger. Less than you, anyway.”

 “You don’t know that.” He sighed. “You’re going to be the death of me, you know.”

 I grinned up at him impishly. “Then I guess we’re even.” He rolled his eyes ostentatiously. “Now would you help me clean up? I wasn’t even messy until you and Prince came along…”

 We found a couple of rags and quickly cleaned our weapons and armour. I poured some water from the water skin over my hands, and scrubbed at them as much as possible. Heading back to the road, Bodahn’s wagon, and the rest of the crew, everyone agreed we could use a bath. Bodahn recommended a hot spring just off the road a few hours further along, and we all hurried somewhat, eager to reach it before nightfall. Aedan avoided me the entire walk, and I knew I was in trouble later. At one point when Aedan was distracted talking with Sten, Zevran approached me.

 “Ah, cara mia, you do have a way of…how should I say…”

 “Pissing Aedan off?”

 “Colourful, and perhaps not quite the way I would describe it, but yes, in essence.”

 “So what do you think? Did I do something so horrendously stupid?”

 “Ah, I would not like to be in the middle of this particular conflict. But I think, perhaps, you both should wait to discuss it until cooler heads prevail, no?”

 I sighed and nodded. Alistair squeezed my hand, and I was glad at least he had decided it wasn’t worth the scolding. I’ve never had anyone scold me out of love before. Maybe it won’t be so bad. I wasn’t even able to convince myself of that.

 We made the hot spring, and settled in to make camp. The girls decided to let the men go first, and then Leliana, Morrigan, Wynne, and I headed down and soaked in the hot spring until I finally felt almost human again. We passed around the soap and shampoo, and then just let the warm water ease the muscle aches that had become constant companions.

 “This sleeping on the ground thing sucks.”

 “Well, Sierra, you could always try sleeping on the handsome templar…I’m sure he wouldn’t mind being a comfortable mattress for you to rest upon.”

 I splashed Leliana indignantly, and Wynne laughed while Morrigan just sniffed, but I saw a grin under her aloof façade. That led to a long, rather embarrassing discussion with Wynne and Leliana about how Alistair and I had not progressed to that point yet, and yes I knew he was inexperienced, and yes I knew where babies come from.

 “Wynne! You’re supposed to have that discussion with Alistair, not me!”

 “Oh, now that does sound like fun.” I arched an eyebrow at the evil grin on her face. “Oh hush, let an old woman have her pleasures while she’s still alive.”

 That earned her an eye roll and a splash from me, and we all laughed. We soaked a bit longer, before hearing someone crashing noisily through the bushes.

 “It’s just me,” Zevran shouted, and all of us sank a little deeper into the water (though it occurred to me he could have crept up on us without anyone the wiser, had he really been trying to peek). “I have my eyes covered.” I looked up to see not very covered eyes, and a smug grin. “My beautiful damsels, I have been sent to tell you that supper is ready. Or at least, so Alistair informs me.”

 A chorus of groans went up at the news that Alistair had been allowed to cook, but after shooing Zevran away we all climbed reluctantly out of the water and dressed. I threw on my simple peasant dress – my armour was damp from me scrubbing it – and headed back up to camp. Grabbing a bowl of the grey mush Alistair claimed was food, I tucked myself onto a small upturned log beside Alistair and tried to convince myself to eat the grey lumps floating in the grey mush.

 “Someday, love, I am going to teach you how to cook. Better than this, anyway.” There was a general chorus of agreement as everyone reluctantly dug into the food. Aedan still avoided me, but I found him in our tent, waiting for me, after Alistair walked me there and kissed me a very sweet, very passionate goodnight that made my toes curl.

 I sighed and curled up on my bedroll. “Aedan, I know you’re angry with me. But listen. I’m not going to sit by and do nothing when I can help us all survive. And I really did need to get Alistair’s opinion on a templar thing. And I was probably safer on my own than standing with you guys anyway. I really…”

 He interrupted me and dragged me into a tight hug. “Just shut up, Sierra! I wasn’t angry. I was scared.”

 “Aedan, I…”

 “No. I’m your brother. I’m allowed to be scared. I realise I can’t stop you, that I probably shouldn’t even if I could, but you have to realise that I’m going to go crazy every time it happens.”

 I wrapped my arms around him, hugging him to me. “I love you too, Aedan.”

 We curled up on our bedrolls and went to sleep holding hands. I woke in the night when my arm was suddenly pulled, somewhat violently. I opened my eyes to see Aedan’s face, by moonlight, sweat rolling off his brow and his mouth open in what looked like horror. He was twitching, kicking and rolling around, but eerily silent. I crawled out of my bedroll and over to him, shaking his shoulder.

 “Aedan. Wake up. It’s just a dream! Aedan!” I finally shook him hard enough that his eyes flew open, unseeing, and he shouted wordlessly. As his wits returned, I saw him focus on my face, hyperventilating, and then the tears started. I sat beside him, wrapping my arms around him, and he curled into me, ending up with his head and shoulders in my lap, his arms locked around my waist while he sobbed. I stroked his hair, murmuring soothing noises, and just let him shudder. I noticed a small earring in one ear lobe, and smiled as I knew what that meant. About time. Go Zev! When he calmed a little, I spoke.

 “Darkspawn dreams?”

 He shook his head, a fresh round of shudders rolling through him. “No. Those are horrible, but not like this. This…Mother and Father, and then…you were…oh, Maker, and I couldn’t save you…”

 I hushed him, holding him tighter to me, not particularly wanting to hear the details of how I’d been mutilated or killed in his dreams. With his history, I knew his imagination had more than enough fodder to come up with something truly horrific. I started humming, Billy Joel again since it was the only lullaby I knew, and after a while his shaking stopped and I heard the soft, regular breathing that I knew meant he was asleep. I wanted to be content to stay like that and let him sleep, but I was exhausted too, and the position wasn’t exactly comfortable for me. I suffered through it until my bladder spasmed, and I knew I needed to move.

 “Zevran? A little help?” I hissed, hoping he’d heard Aedan’s shout and was lurking within earshot. I was right, and it was only moments before I heard rustling at the tent flap.

 “What do you need? Oh.” Without further comment, he crawled in to the tent, gently disentangled Aedan from my lap, and eased him back onto his bedroll. His expression was shockingly tender, and I smiled at the surprisingly strong elf.

 “Will you stay with him? I need to…uh…do something.” He grinned at me and nodded. “Actually, I think he could benefit from you staying all night, if you don’t mind. I think he’d sleep better, you know, cuddled with someone. Would you?”

 He nodded again and squirmed into the tiny space behind Aedan, wrapping his arms around the bigger man. I pushed my bedroll up against him to give him a bit more space, covered them both with a blanket, and crawled out of the tent as quietly as I could. Sten was watching me with an unreadable look, as I staggered off into the woods to take care of business. When I returned, I sat down beside the big man at the fire.

 “And where will you sleep, Kadan?” I was ridiculously pleased at the honorific. I wouldn’t have thought that a feeble girl would ever earn a Qunari warrior’s respect.

 “I guess I could go in Zevran’s tent…he can’t complain, since he’s in mine…”

 I reflected that it was past time that Aedan and Zevran shared a tent every night. I was going to need a better long-term solution to my sleep disorder. I had hoped that resolving things with Alistair – the good way, for once – might help, but so far no such luck. I was still afraid to sleep. As I pondered my options, Alistair walked up to the fire, startling me. He nodded at Sten, and I realised he must have been doing his two-hourly check for darkspawn. He sat down beside me and took my hand.

 “I…maybe you wouldn’t be comfortable with this, I don’t know, but…you could share with me, for now, if you want. It’s probably inappropriate, and your brother might murder me, but I swear I’ll be a complete gentleman.” I was almost disappointed. “I know you don’t like to sleep alone. I can make room…”

 He trailed off, his face beet red but completely earnest. I had to admit, there was strong appeal to sharing a tent with a gorgeous man – my gorgeous man – even if there wouldn’t be any hanky panky. I studied his eyes, looking for any sign of reluctance or worry, and found none. And I certainly wasn’t afraid of being alone with him – in fact, it might take a miracle for me to keep my hands to myself. I wondered if he’d mind, but then reminded myself that I was going to wait for him to come to me. I needed to be damn sure anything we did was his idea, not mine.

 After just a brief hesitation, I smiled and nodded.

 “You sure that’s okay?”

 “Yeah, I’m sure. What, you expect me to give up my chance to wake up beside you? No way.”

 “I’ll just grab myself a blanket from Zev’s tent then.”

 He smiled, looking genuinely pleased. He crawled into his tent as I grabbed two blankets from Zev’s and then followed him in. He was lying on his back, on the ground, leaving the bedroll for me. I shook my head.

 “If we’re going to do this, we’re both going to be at least vaguely comfortable. You lay on the bedroll. Squish to the side as much as you can. I…can we…that is, could we cuddle? It will just make this easier.”

 He nodded, looking amused. I stuck out my tongue and he laughed, then tried to comply with my instructions. Apparently someone Alistair’s size has trouble squishing, but I used the extra blanket to pad the dirt along his side, and then carefully lay down beside him. I encouraged him to put one arm around me, and I put my head on his shoulder. It felt…perfect. I was beyond being surprised that we fit together so well. I hummed happily and he kissed the top of my head. I thought being so close to him might be distracting, keep me from sleeping, but no sooner had we covered ourselves with blankets, I was asleep.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Seven: Sleeping Arrangements

 When I woke, we had shifted positions; Alistair was spooned behind me, and his arms were around me tightly. It was extremely comfortable. And then it occurred to me that one massive hand had settled, unknowingly I was sure, on my left breast. I was wearing armour – I had gotten used to sleeping in it, sadly – so it wasn’t like he was feeling much of my actual boob, but it made me blush anyway. And if nothing else, I could feel the heat of his hand through my leathers, and knew my nipple was probably hard as a rock just from the principle of the thing.

 I had only a moment to reflect on that, however, before the whole tent shook and I heard angry shouting.

 “Sierra!” Aedan sounded pissed. Or freaked. I wasn’t sure which. “You better be decent, because I’m coming in.” My brother’s head popped in through the tent flap. “Andraste’s sodding ass, Sierra, what do you think you’re sodding doing in this sodding tent?”

 Alistair woke with a start and a muffled oath. I laughed, and Aedan narrowed his eyes at me.

 “Aedan, as you can see, we’re both dressed. We’re even under separate blankets, okay? Get it under control.”

 My lack of remorse seemed to be aggravating the situation. Aedan’s face was purple, and I couldn’t tell for the life of me what that expression meant but it clearly wasn’t good. I could vaguely hear Zevran whispering, behind Aedan, and Leliana was saying something too, but I ignored them and stared Aedan down. I may have been thrilled to suddenly have a family, but I wasn’t about to let him humiliate me into feeling bad about this situation. And I was suddenly sure – Alistair hadn’t moved his hand, and he must have realised where it was by now – that the level of intimacy was going to be increasing, and soon, and I wasn’t going to let Aedan ruin it for me. Fortunately his hand was hidden by blankets, otherwise I thought I might see what human spontaneous combustion looked like.

 Finally, with another oath, Aedan looked away. He backed out of the tent and stormed off, and I assumed Zevran would follow him and prevent him from doing anything stupid. I squirmed around until I was lying on my back, Alistair’s arms still around me, hand still cupping my breast through my leathers. I sighed.

 “Sorry, Sierra. Knew he’d be angry but I didn’t think…”

 “Don’t worry about it. He needs to learn to cope. I’m not a child, and he may be my brother but that doesn’t mean he gets to judge my decisions.” I couldn’t believe we were just going to talk about Aedan, and not discuss the hand. His face was sort of flushed, but not a word? Not one to point out the elephant in the room, I waited to see what would happen.

 “Sorry I didn’t speak up. I’m not the brightest first thing in the morning, so at first I was just confused, and then after, I didn’t even know where to start.”

 “Nah, it’s good. He’d have lost it if you’d piped up, I think. And it isn’t about you, it’s about how he sees me. We need to figure that out between us. So actually, thank you for letting me fight my own battles.” I smiled, and his hesitant face broke out into a sunny grin that melted my heart.

 “I like waking up with you in my arms. Even if it involves Aedan shouting.”

 His smile faded and changed to something more intense, his eyes darkening as he leaned in for a kiss. I closed my eyes and surrendered to it, opening my mouth and moaning as his tongue immediately took advantage. It occurred to me to wonder who taught him to kiss – I really should send whoever it was a thank-you note – but decided I’d just enjoy it rather than worry about it. Especially since I knew jealous-Sierra was never far from the surface when it came to Alistair. And then the hand on my breast flexed slightly – I suspected it was involuntary – and suddenly I couldn’t think about anything except his lips, his hands, and how to get closer to that gorgeous body I knew was under there somewhere. My passion seemed to have rubbed off on him and he rolled forward, trapping me half under him, pressing my hip into the bedroll and kissing me savagely.

 I lifted my one leg that had mobility, curling it around his hip, my free hand running down his sculpted chest, feeling the curve of hard muscle. He gasped and clutched me harder, setting up a feedback loop of pleasure and accidental boldness until he broke away with a low growl, rolling to his own back beside me and releasing my right side. I couldn’t quite stop a disappointed whine from escaping as his weight left me and his hand extracted itself from my breast.

 “I am such an ass.” He lifted his arm up to lay across his eyes, as if shading them from the sun, but given that we were in a tent, it was sort of obvious he was just avoiding eye contact.

 “Alistair?” His tone frightened me, and I tried to prepare myself for what I thought would come next – the apology followed by ‘I made a mistake’.

 “I offer you a place to sleep and promise to be a gentleman, and then I jump on you the first chance I get. Do you think…you could forgive me? I swear if you give me another chance I won’t take advantage. I-“

 I cut him off, almost laughing in relief. I rolled to my side and pushed up to kneel beside him. I stretched out across him, self-conscious about the weight I was laying on him, but needing the intimacy and wanting to be nose-to-nose before I spoke.

 “Nothing to forgive, love.” I reached up and moved the arm he’d flung over his eyes, putting his hand back on my now-chilly breast, then leaned down and kissed him lightly, teasingly flicking my tongue across his lower lip. He opened his eyes in surprise, and I smiled down at him.

 “Besides. Even if something had really happened…” I leaned closer to whisper directly into his ear, “…it most definitely would not have been one-sided.”

 I gave him a moment to process what I’d said, then sucked his vulnerable, perfect earlobe into my mouth, teasing the sensitive skin with the tip of my tongue. His reaction was electric, and he clutched me to his chest, hand again involuntarily squeezing my breast, gasping my name as he sort of convulsed. His voice was low and husky, and made me shiver. Before I could do anything else I promised myself I wouldn’t do, I pushed up and off him and rolled away, straightening my hair and adjusting my armour.

 “Sierra?” His tone was still husky and I had to steel myself against pulling off my armour and attacking him on the spot.

 I turned my head to face him, and gave as lascivious a grin as I could. “Rise and shine, sweetheart; time to face the music.” I winked. “I’m going to go deal with Aedan. Do you mind packing up the tent? I promise to help tomorrow.”

 His face was thoughtful as I scooted out of the tent.

 Out by the campfire, Leliana was making breakfast. “Good morning, Sierra! Breakfast?” Her eyes were twinkling, and I knew the teasing later would be intense. Wynne had her nose in a book, as usual, and didn’t even notice me. I wondered if avoidance was her way of not being judgemental about us. Or maybe it was just a good book.

 “Hey, Leli. Um, I’ll eat in a minute. Seen Aedan?”

 Her grin widened and she gestured off towards the hot spring. I sighed and headed that way. I found Aedan, sitting on the bank, his feet soaking in the warm water. Zevran sat silently a few feet away on a rock, and I wondered if Aedan had even noticed he was there. The assassin smiled at me and squeezed my hand as he headed back to camp, leaving me alone with my brother. I sat down next to Aedan, legs curled beside me, and after a silent minute, leaned my head on his shoulder.

 “So. Do you truly object, or are you just being a protective big brother?”

 He sighed. “I don’t know.”

 “Okay, then, let’s start with something easier. Do you think Alistair is a bad choice for me?”

 “No. Not at all.”

 His immediate response to that made me smile. “And do you doubt that I love him?”

 “Any idiot can see that you love him. Except him, I suppose.”

 “Do you believe he loves me?”

 “Any idiot except you can see that one.” He grinned slightly, and shifted to put his arm around my waist.

 “So let’s see. He loves me, I love him, and you approve of the match. You didn’t know any of those three things the first time you snuck off into the bushes with Zevran, did you?”

 His cheeks coloured. “No.”

 “So it’s just a double-standard then? Cousland men are allowed to sleep with anyone, anytime, but Cousland women are expected to remain celibate even after they’ve found the person they love?”

 “Sierra…”

 “Don’t ‘Sierra’ me. It’s going to happen, if I’m incredibly lucky, and I’m not going to turn him down because you’re being an over-protective freak, but I really would like your blessing. Not to mention that if you don’t give it, things are going to get awkward at dinners in camp…”

 He sighed. “Oh, you have my blessing. You knew you would. But you could have, I don’t know, warned me or something.”

 “It wasn’t like it was a plan! You fell asleep on me, and Zevran heard me struggling and helped me get you to bed, and you stopped thrashing and having nightmares when he held you, so it just made sense for him to stay. So I went out, and realised I didn’t have anywhere to sleep except alone in Zev’s tent, but you know I don’t sleep well alone, and so Alistair was awake and he offered…”

 “Okay, okay. Fine. Does that mean it goes back to normal tonight?”

 I looked at him, simultaneously amused and irritated at his stubbornness. “…No. I think it’s way past time that you and Zev had a tent of your own. And frankly, it turns out Alistair makes a comfortable pillow, which is hard to find on the road. Nothing is happening between us – yet – but I’m not giving up waking up in his arms to assuage your weird feelings.”

 “You don’t make it easy, do you? It’s hard enough watching my best friend and my sister together, but now I can’t even tell you to ‘be careful’ the way I should, because I know damn well he won’t hurt you. It’s just…awkward.”

 “I love you too. And I’ll be fine, you know I will. And I know that you and Sten will beat Alistair into next week if he hurts me, so I think I’m safe.”

 Aedan grinned. “Who knew the big guy would turn out to be such a softy, hey?”

 We both laughed, and Aedan shook the water off his feet before stuffing them into socks and then boots. We walked back to camp, laughing and teasing each other, and both cracked up when Alistair’s face, abnormally pale and sweaty, came in to view. Aedan let me go and walked up to Alistair. He held out his hand, and they shook. Alistair’s look of relief was comical, and I plopped down beside Leliana to giggle as we watched them. Breakfast was a rowdy affair, even Morrigan joining in the general revelry, before we packed up and headed out again.

 As we walked, Alistair took my hand and then proceeded to drag his feet until we were well back from the rest of the group. When he thought no one was looking, he dragged me off the path, pressed me up against a tree, growling, and kissed me. It was sudden and unexpected and intense, and left me panting.

 “So what exactly did you mean when you said you’d help me pack up tomorrow?”

 I blinked, confused. “Uh, I thought that was sort of self-explanatory. After we wake up, I’ll help you pack our tent and stuff.”

 His voice cracked slightly. “Our tent?”

 My cheeks coloured and my heart dropped. “Oh, I, uh, didn’t think. And I wasn’t planning on having sex or anything. I just sort of assumed you’d…” I trailed off, embarrassed and mortified. “…but if you’d rather not, then I can find somewhere else to sleep. I understand. I’m sorry, Alistair-“

 He silenced whatever I was planning to say next with another intense kiss. He pressed me against the tree, pulling my arms up around his neck, grinding his hips against mine. His tongue ruthlessly invaded my mouth, and I moaned, tangling my hands in his blond hair. His armour was hard and uncomfortable squashed between us, and his hands roamed down my sides, one of them dipping down to stroke the curve of my hip.

 He finally pulled away, resting his forehead against my own. We were both breathless, and I could feel the puffs of air leaving his mouth blowing across my lips. I moaned again, confused, and at the same time, completely aroused. When he spoke, his voice was that low, husky tone that I couldn’t resist, and it sent waves of heat washing through me.

 “I can’t wait until tonight, then. This is going to be a long day.” He rubbed the tip of his nose against mine and I giggled. “Maker’s Breath, what did I ever do to deserve you? I am a lucky man.” He kissed me again, soft and sweet this time, and then broke away, catching my hand and pulling me back out onto the road.

 We were less than two days from Denerim, Aedan informed us as we caught up to the rest of the group. Two days to figure out what the hell we were going to do once there. We needed to confront Marjolaine, see if we could sneak into the Alienage and check on things, talk to Wade and get some armour made, and then hide out while he worked on it. I imagined we’d do some good deeds, some chanter’s board stuff to make money, that sort of thing. I’d also had a thought about having a chat with a particular dwarf in the market district.

 The problem was, we had absolutely no idea what to expect heading into Denerim. The world had changed from what I knew, and it was possible they were barring the gates, or searching those who entered, or had lookouts trying to spot Aedan and Alistair. We batted around ideas – trying to sneak multiple small groups in, or having everyone try to dress as servants with me as a noblewoman, but none of the ideas were fool-proof. We decided to wait and see what the situation at the gates was before entering. There was no one else on the road to ask for an update, which in itself was a bit of a bad sign – there should have been at least some traffic this close to Denerim.

 We had decided long before that Sten, Shale, and Morrigan would remain outside the city. There was just no way to hide a golem or a Qunari in a human city, and I had always been amazed in game that no one commented if you were strolling through the Denerim market as, say, an elf, with only a Qunari, a golem, and a mabari for company. And between Morrigan’s clothes and her temper, it was probably best that she stay away from heavily inhabited areas. None of the three seemed upset at the idea, though I figured we should buy Morrigan something shiny, and get Sten some cookies, just in case. I had no idea what to get Shale, really.

 Alistair and I spent the rest of the day watching each other. Whether we walked together or apart, every couple of minutes I’d glance over to ogle the handsome man I was going to be sharing a tent with that night, only to catch him staring at me with dark eyes. We’d both blush when our eyes met, and look away, only to have it happen again five minutes later. Before long, even Leliana wouldn’t walk with me anymore, and Alistair and I were banished to the back of the group to walk together. I barely noticed, all my attention trained on the mouth-watering Warden at my side.

 The day passed quickly, and we soon found ourselves putting up a tent together, using the extra material from Zevran’s to enlarge it, laying our two bedrolls side by side with blushing smiles. There was a small stream – barely deep enough to get wet, and ice cold – that would be the last chance we had to clean up before arriving in Denerim. After sparring with Aedan as usual, I took the opportunity to bathe as well as I could, hurrying back to the fire in a simple linen dress as fast as possible to warm up. Alistair, who’d also cleaned up, was in trousers and a shirt instead of armour, and for the first time, when I sat in his lap and he wrapped his arms around me to help me warm up, I couldn’t help but feel the heat of him burning through both layers of thin clothing. I could feel the hardness of his impressive muscles when I curled into him, trying to leech heat, and I was sure he could feel the curve of my hip under his hand, my ass against his lap.

 “Maker’s Balls, Sierra! Your hands are cold!”

 For fun I stuck them down the back of Alistair’s neck, thoroughly enjoying his wriggling attempt at escaping. He finally managed to grip my hands in his own, rubbing them and blowing warm air on them, which was strangely erotic. Right now everything he does is erotic, if I’m honest. I smiled appreciatively and tried not to let my mind climb down into the gutter. Leliana served the ever-popular stew for supper, and I laughed as I watched Aedan and Alistair wolf theirs down like mabari pups and then ask for more. We skipped templar practice – I was a hot mess, all edgy in anticipation, and I doubted Alistair was in much better shape. As soon as it was practical, we retired to our tent, faces crimson with embarrassment and desire. I heard laughter coming from the campfire after we left it, and couldn’t even bring myself to care.

 I discovered a problem once we were in the tent – changing into sleep clothes. Neither of us planned to wear armour, but I didn’t intend to sleep in my linen dress, and I wasn’t about to get naked in front of Alistair just yet. I sat on my bedroll, legs tucked under me in a most lady-like fashion, and looked up to find Alistair staring at me. Awkward!

 I cleared my throat and tried to think of something to say, failing miserably. Alistair just kept looking at me, and my mind went completely blank. We stayed like that, both blushing, me fidgeting with the shift I planned to sleep in, until I’d finally had enough.

 “Oh, for the love of God. Forget this!”

 I uncurled from my bedroll and flung myself into Alistair’s arms. He caught me without hesitation, and the awkwardness faded to nothing as our lips met. He pulled me into his lap again, my arms around his neck, hands fisting in his short, golden hair, and I felt his hands, one splayed against my back, the other on my thigh just above my knee. I immediately opened my mouth, and he took the invitation, stroking my tongue with his own, making me groan softly. I was dizzy with the intensity of the kiss, and some part of me realised I wasn’t breathing, and I pulled away. Alistair grunted, disappointed, until I used my grip on his hair to pull his head back and attacked his jawline with my lips and tongue. He tasted like soap, of course, but also camp smoke and sweat and something that was just all him. It was intoxicating, and I kept going until I reached his ear, relishing the sounds I was dragging out of his mouth.

 I could feel his hands, fisted in the material of my dress, the one stubbornly, frustratingly staying on my knee, the other behind my back. I wanted those hands elsewhere; I wanted to rip off my clothes and have my way with him. I wanted to break the iron control that was allowing him to hold position. I squirmed in his lap, aroused and unsatisfied, and he gasped and clenched his hands. I grabbed his earlobe between my lips, nibbling it gently, before running my tongue up the outside of the sensitive skin. He was shivering, now, but I wanted more. I stroked my tongue back down his ear, only to continue down his strong neck. I lapped at his skin, enjoying every hiss and moan, and then gently bit him in the crease where his neck met his shoulder.

 I finally got the response I was looking for. With a feral moan, the hand behind me slid up to tangle in my thick brown hair, pulling me back from his neck so he could ravage my mouth with a kiss. The hand on my knee crept to my waist, settling just below my heaving breast, tantalising me with its proximity. Impatient and unable to wait any longer, I grabbed the hand in one of mine and dragged it, unresisting, to cover my breast.

 When he’d touched my breast that morning, it had been through leather armour. This was nothing like that. His hand was almost hot, and I shivered at the temperature differential as he engulfed the small mound. My nipple was hard, and scraped across his palm as I dragged it into place. We both moaned, and his hand convulsively clutched me again, squeezing my breast. I almost came on the spot, feeling his hardness under my lap, his fingers toying with my erect nipple. I bucked up into his hand, and he gasped out loud.

 I had just enough time to enjoy the sensation before I heard something coming from the direction of camp. Through a haze of desire, part of my mind tried to sort out what I was hearing. There was the bounding sound of a large animal running, and I pulled away from the kiss with a look of total confusion on my face. And then Aedan’s voice came into focus.

 “Prince, no! Bad dog!”

 Suddenly anticipating what was next, I wrapped my arms around Alistair’s head and threw my weight into him. Surprised, he fell back, avoiding banging his head by a narrow margin. He instinctively pulled me close, which turned out to be a bad move because when the ton of enthusiastic mabari – and a few pounds of oiled tent cloth – landed on me, I fell forward to head-butt Alistair directly in the face. I heard a shout and a muffled swear, and felt blood pouring down his face, running into my hair and streaking my own face in the process. Preparing to jump, Prince transferred his weight to his back paws, and I let out a scream as I felt something pop under the weight. A rib, I assumed, from the fire racing through my chest and my sudden inability to breathe without pain.

 Prince yelped – I could have sworn he actually said ‘sorry’ – and finally managed to get off; I hoped someone corralled the silly animal before he stepped on me again while trying to apologise. When my head finally cleared, I could feel Alistair wriggling around under me, and hear a panicked Aedan shouting my name. I tried to respond, but ended up emitting only a pained moan. Suddenly the material of the tent was lifted, and I turned my head to try to see the worried face of my brother peering down at me. A glance behind him showed Zevran smirking, and Leliana covering her mouth as she tried not to break out laughing. Wynne’s face was disapproving, but somehow still both concerned and slightly amused, while Morrigan’s typical sneer just added to the overall hilarity I could somehow see.

 Without further ado, I absolutely lost it. I howled in laughter, my sides shaking, the heaves jarring my sore chest, but I couldn’t stop. I heard Leliana’s refined giggle, and Sten’s snort of disgust, and then Alistair and Aedan joined in and shortly we were all cracking up. I cackled until I felt the soothing aura of Wynne’s healing as she repaired my rib, and then Alistair’s nose, which was still pouring blood. Alistair gently held me as he rolled to the side, depositing me on the remains of the tent, and scrambled to his feet. He gave me an embarrassed grin as he bent down to pick me up and set me down on a nearby log.

 I buried my face in his shirt as he held me, relieved to have the pain gone, amused by the ridiculousness of the situation, and frankly disgusted by being covered in Alistair’s blood. He finally pulled away, and I looked up to see our tent being reassembled by Zevran and Leliana, while Aedan just glowered at Prince. Or at least he tried to glower; it was difficult, with Prince sitting by me, chest puffed out proudly, looking quite pleased with himself.

 “Aedan? What on earth was that about?”

 My brother walked over and settled beside me with a sigh. “I’m going to guess that Prince didn’t want anyone touching his human.” Prince woofed happily, giving me what looked like a grin. Aedan face-palmed. “And it would seem he’s a misogynist – he didn’t do it to me and Zev.”

 “Hey!” Alistair protested indignantly, and Prince gave him a look that said ‘you know you deserve it’. I couldn’t help but laugh, earning myself a glare from Alistair. I schooled my expression as Aedan called Prince over. He slid his huge head into Aedan’s lap, almost purring. Aedan cupped his face and lifted to make eye contact.

 “Bad dog, Prince. You hurt Sierra badly today.” Prince whined and tried to look away, but Aedan maintained the position. “Sierra can take care of herself. You don’t need to protect her from friends. Only from darkspawn and bandits. Alistair is a friend.”

 Prince rolled his eyes over to look at Alistair, crouched nearby, and sneezed in his general direction, before looking back at Aedan with disgust. He whined again.

 “Friend.” Aedan said it firmly, right in Prince’s face, and the furry monster finally made a noise that sounded vaguely like acceptance. “Now you better think of some way to make it up to Sierra and Alistair. You owe them both an apology. And if you do something like that again, I’ll chain you to a tree in camp from now on.”

 The fact that he was talking to his dog like normal parents might to a six-year-old was too funny, and I had to laugh. Aedan finally released Prince, and he came over and tentatively licked my fingers. I scratched his ears and he chuffed happily. Turning to Alistair, he looked back once at Aedan, like he was checking to see if Aedan was joking, and when he got nothing but a glare in return, he stepped up to Alistair, lowered his head in an oddly submissive pose, and whined. Always a softy, Alistair snorted but then reached out to stroke the soft fur on Prince’s head. Satisfied that he’d been forgiven, the mabari wandered back over to the fire and laid down.

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Eight: Spidey Senses

 Leli and Zev had finished with our tent, and I stood up, taking Alistair’s hand. As I stood, Aedan pointed down towards the river.

 “Get cleaned up again, both of you. You look like you’ve been rolling around in a battlefield.”

 I looked up at Alistair and realised his face and neck were covered in dried blood; reaching up, I recalled that so was I. My hair was crusted with it, and I was suddenly thoroughly disgusted. His expression mirrored my feelings, and after grabbing soap we headed down to the stream hand-in-hand, barely able to see in the last light of dusk. I knelt on the bank, carefully using a cloth to wash my face and neck. Alistair just waded right in, fully clothed, to my amusement. When he assured me I’d gotten the blood off my face, I cast about awkwardly trying to figure out how to wash my hair without climbing in entirely.

 “Let me.”

 “Huh?” I’m always so eloquent.

 “Roll onto your back, and I’ll wash it.”

 “I’ll fall in!”

 “Not with me right behind you. I won’t let you fall, Sierra.”

 I trusted Alistair, but was still a little nervous. I reluctantly turned, sitting with my back to the stream, and he waded up behind me. He put his steady hands on my shoulders and eased me back; I gasped as the cold water crept down my neck as my hair submerged. His fingers were strong, his hands warm, and he leaned over me, concentrating intensely, as he carefully lathered my long thick hair. His fingers massaged my scalp, and I moaned, the sensuousness contrasting strangely with the cold.

 He smiled softly at me. “You are so beautiful, Sierra.”

 “Flattery will get you everywhere.” I closed my eyes and just enjoyed the intimacy.

 I was surprised when, a moment later, I felt his lips press gently against mine. It was like some weird moment from a chick flick – I recalled a scene from the Bourne Identity or some such where he was washing her hair and they ended up kissing – but it was better. He was Alistair, and he was real, and it was happening to me. The kiss ended and he pulled away, still supporting my head.

 “All clean, I think. And it’s cold – we had better get you dry and warm.”

 He helped me sit, and I quickly wrung the excess water out of my hair and twisted it into a bun to prevent it dripping too much. He climbed out of the water, and I was momentarily dumbstruck. Despite being fully clothed, the water meant that nothing was really hidden. He was six feet of gorgeous, and I moaned again in spite of myself. He glanced at me curiously, and I was intensely grateful for the near-darkness that covered my blush. I shook my head, trying to gather my wits, and scrambled to my feet.

 Suddenly aware of how cold it was, we instinctively clung together, though his wet clothes were probably not helping me any. Reaching the tent, I insisted he crawl in first and change his soaked clothing, and I went to huddle by the fire. Zevran, on watch, was the only one left outside, and he had thoughtfully tossed some extra wood on the fire. I wiggled as close to the fire as I could tolerate and sat with my wet hair towards the heat. I knew it wouldn’t dry that fast, but the warmth felt wonderful.

 Zevran raised his eyebrows with a smirk on his face as he dramatically glanced over at the tent I shared with Alistair and then back at me. His thoughts were plain – why was I out here when there was a perfectly naked, gorgeous templar in there? I scowled at the elf and shook my head. I’d had enough unintentional embarrassment for one night – I didn’t need to add walking in on Alistair while he was changing. I wanted to get naked with him, more than I was comfortable admitting, but I wasn’t going to have the first time be sort-of accidental and awkward and in a tent with everyone listening. We weren’t ready. Zevran just shook his head, amused.

 Alistair saved me by emerging quickly, dry if not yet warm, and I slipped into the tent to change into a light shift for sleeping. I looked critically at the dress as I took it off – it was probably a lost cause, with all the blood around the neck, but I put it aside to ask Leliana’s opinion later. I wonder if they have bleach in Ferelden. I called out softly when I was ready, and Alistair crawled back into the small space.

 Neither of us spoke; I think we both knew that the mood had been well and truly broken, and I for one was freezing. Our bedrolls were pushed up side by side, and as he laid down, I snuggled up to him. I could feel myself start to shiver, and he wrapped a warm arm around me as we pulled both blankets up to cover both of us. Cuddled in his arms, finally starting to warm up, I felt myself drifting off to sleep.

 “Love you.” I mumbled. I felt more than heard him reply, but I was asleep before whatever he said penetrated.

 I woke in the same position I’d been sleeping in, snuggled up to Alistair’s side. I opened my eyes, expecting to see morning light filtering through the tent fabric, but it was mostly dark outside and very, very quiet. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had woken me, though I couldn’t imagine what; Alistair slept peacefully, so obviously it was only me. I tried to settle back down and get more sleep – my eyes were gritty with fatigue, and I clearly needed the rest – but I felt like I was going to crawl right out of my skin, and the sensation wouldn’t let me rest. It was a familiar sensation, the more I thought about it, and I realised that it was similar to the feeling I’d had early on after meeting Zevran when he’d been trying to prank me while meditating with Alistair. In fact, it suddenly occurred to me, it wasn’t similar – it was exactly the same.

 I would have slapped myself upside the head if I thought I had time. I jerked upright, and let out the loudest yell I could manage.

 “Wake up! We’re under attack!”

 I heard a startled Leliana scramble to her feet out by the fire, grumbling about bad dreams, just in time for the whistle of an arrow to be heard flying through the camp. It thunked into something, and from Leliana’s sudden shriek, the something was her. Moments later I felt Wynne’s magic flare, and then a few seconds later Morrigan’s, and I hoped one or the other had taken care of Leliana.

 Alistair, more alert than I despite having just woken, grabbed me with one arm, his sword – which I hadn’t realised was right beside his bedroll – with the other, and with a grunt, rolled us. We hit the side of the tent and stopped, just as a couple of crossbow bolts pierced the spot we had been sleeping in. Releasing me, Alistair bolted from the tent with a growl, and I heard his shout at the same time as the clashing of metal from the other side of the camp.

 I scrambled for my own daggers, our tent no longer under attack since Alistair had exited, and tried to follow him out, but he was blocking the exit, engaged in furious combat with someone whose legs I could only glimpse briefly between Alistair’s. There was enough moonlight to see, but barely. It was just as well; as I ducked back into the tent, I felt the aura that could mean only one thing – our ambushers had a mage with them. It was different from Wynne’s soothing presence, and similar to Morrigan’s, but I could tell Morrigan was on the opposite side of the camp, in spider form I guessed, and this was much closer.

 Closing my eyes to concentrate, I found the source of the mana and reached out, as I’d shown Alistair on the hapless darkspawn Emissary. I heard a scream as I seized that power, but then had no idea what to do with it. Crawling back to the tent flap, by the wan moonlight I could see Alistair bleeding from a slash to the arm, and all of a sudden instead of being afraid, I was angry. How dare these bastards try to hurt my family? I growled and felt the power I held change, move somehow, and suddenly Alistair was surrounded by a brief flash of white light. I catalogued what I had done with half my mind, comparing it to what had happened at Ostagar, while the rest still watched Alistair. The next time his assailant got a hit in, the sword stopped an inch from his skin as though he wore his usual armour, and a spark flared; the sword seemed to rebound up and fly away, and I heard a curse as the man lost his grip. Alistair slashed his neck easily, and the would-be assassin dropped, hands trying in vain to close over the wound.

 When Alistair stepped forward, I could finally see Aedan, dancing between two men with great swords, and my anger flared again; another flash of white light, and I knew he’d be similarly protected. I was able to crawl out of the tent and climb to my feet, turning to see the terrified visage of a young man in robes, clutching a staff ineffectually, and chanting frantically. I was amused to note that what he was chanting wasn’t an attempt to cast a spell, but rather a prayer to the Maker. I looked away from him and spun, picking out my friends in the darkness, seeing flashes of light as shields went up. Alistair was relieving some of the pressure on Aedan, while Zevran fought to keep Leliana safe near the fire. Prince and Sten were finishing off the archers that had started the whole thing, and Shale protected Wynne as she circled, looking for obvious injuries. I couldn’t see Morrigan, but her aura had last flared at the edge of the woods, and a number of writhing, screaming attackers demonstrated the power of her bites. None of the people I could see near her were capable of standing, never mind fighting, so for the moment she was safe.

 As I completed my circle, the rest of my group finished off the last of the enemy; Zevran and Aedan went around slitting the throats of those still breathing. That left just the mage near me, now completely devoid of mana. I caught Alistair’s eye and then put up one of the shields I had finally figured out, and he nodded. Aedan walked up to the mage, who had fallen to his knees, dropped his staff, and held his hands out to the sides in an effort to look non-threatening. His frightened eyes were fixed on me until Aedan stepped into his line of sight.

 I didn’t stop to watch the encounter between the mage and Aedan; I turned and rushed over to where Leliana had fallen by the fire. Zevran had her propped up against his chest, his hands holding her shoulders still, while Wynne slowly, methodically worked an arrow out through the back of her leg. She’d cut away the leather of her armour, revealing an expanse of pale thigh. I was relieved to see not much bleeding – the arrow hadn’t hit an artery – but one look at Zevran’s too-blank face and I knew I was missing something. When I looked closer, I could already see the edges of the wound blackening, and Leliana didn’t even seem to notice the pain as Wynne pressed the arrowhead deeper into her flesh. Poisoned, damn it. Leliana’s face was pale, and I didn’t think she’d notice our conversation.

 “Wynne?”

 “I see it, child. I tried, but I don’t know enough about poisons.”

 “Zev?”

 “Two or three possibilities come to mind. If I knew which, I could make an antidote – maybe, if I have the supplies available – but if I give her the wrong one, it will be worse than the poison.”

 I swore. “Zev, can you…look, don’t hurt anyone, but can you find out what the poison was?” I gestured with my head to the mage behind me.

 Zev nodded grimly, grabbing Leliana’s blanket and wrapping it around her now-shivering upper body. I stayed with her, but watched Zev as he stood and headed back to the apostate, still kneeling in front of Aedan. He reached down into the grass near my tent and picked up one of the daggers that I’d dropped there. Steeling myself against what I had asked him to do, I watched him walk up behind the mage, grabbing a rough handful of his hair and tilting his head back. His hair fell back, and I realised he was an elf. I hadn’t even noticed. Zev held the dagger at his throat.

 “Zevran…” Aedan murmured, warningly.

 He must have winked at Aedan, because his body language subtly relaxed. Zevran spoke.

 “I’m afraid your sad story won’t sway me, little mage. My friend is dying. So either you tell me what poison they used to tip their arrows, or you die.” He pushed his head down, and looked at Aedan, who nodded, ever so briefly. Like he’d actually kill someone. Oh wait... “Think carefully, little maleficar. I’ve seen your friends – they were nothing more than thugs. I’d be willing to bet that you made the poison for them. Tell me now, and I might be inclined to allow my friend here to continue with whatever soft-hearted plan he has that will allow you to keep your pathetic little life. Refuse me, and I will use you to refresh some skills I haven’t practiced in a while.”

 I almost felt sorry for him, felt sick for torturing him even if only emotionally, but we needed to know what poison they used. I left Leliana, wrapped tightly in a blanket, with Wynne, and walked over. The apostate’s eyes went wide as I approached. Zevran shook his head, pulling at his hair – enough to hurt, not enough to damage.

 “Speak.”

 “I don’t…I don’t know what it’s called. Please. I’ll tell you everything I know. There used to be another mage with us – he died a few months ago – but he taught me how to make basic poisons and poultices. I don’t know what it’s called, but I can tell you how it’s made. Or, I can make the antidote. I know how. One of the guys accidentally cut himself once on an arrow. There might even be some of the antidote back at my camp. Please, please. Don’t hurt me. Kill me if you have to” – his eyes opened, tears streaming, looking at Aedan, pleading – “but don’t let her hurt me.” I was fascinated that it was me he was concerned about, despite Zevran’s dagger at his throat. He was babbling, and I figured about ten seconds from soiling his robes.

 The assassin shook the young mage’s head again. “Tell us how the poison is made, and then the antidote. Lie, and you’re mine.”

 I looked at Zev skeptically, and tried not to grin. Zev crouched down and listened to a list of ingredients and instructions flow frantically out of the terrified elf’s mouth. Zev nodded every now and then, and I was encouraged to see that he seemed to recognise the poison. After a few minutes, he stood up.

 “Can you fix it?”

 Zevran shook his head. “There’s no way to get what I need, here. But it sounds like they’ve got some of the antidote, and probably the supplies I’d need to make it, back at their camp. He says this was all the men with them, that the camp is deserted. I’ll go check it out, and if it’s not a trap, I’ll get the antidote.”

 “Can you trust that it’s the right one?”

 “I’ll know it by smell. It’s quite distinctive. If it’s wrong, I’ll make some myself with their herbs.”

 Aedan’s voice rang out. “Take Morrigan with you. She can scout by air, and if you get in trouble, come get us.”

 I heard the cawing of a crow overhead, and knew she was one step ahead. Zevran handed me my blade and took off after her at a run. I walked away from the hapless mage with a disgusted snort and headed back over to where Wynne was hovering over a grey, sweaty Leliana. With nothing else to offer, I sat beside her and held her hand. I briefly wished I was religious – any faith would do – so that I could at least pray and believe it might help. Wynne spared me a sympathetic look and continued to fuss over Leli, checking and rechecking on her condition. Alistair had dressed, and came to sit behind me, his enormous plate armour giving me something to lean against, and held my other hand in his.

 Aedan joined us, and I realised he’d left the mage alone and unbound. Well, alone except for Prince, who obviously shared my dislike and stared at the young man with an almost disturbing intensity. Shale and Sten were piling corpses for burning off in the woods. I shot Aedan an incredulous look, and he shrugged.

 “How long can you keep him from casting?”

 “No idea, actually. Though if I lose it, Alistair can take over. Why isn’t he at least tied up?”

 “There’s extenuating circumstances, Sierra.”

 “Of course there are. And so we’re going to do what with him? Let him go? Ask him to join us?”

 Aedan spoke defensively. “It’s what you had us do with Zevran, I’ll remind you. Sten too, for that matter.”

 “Because I knew what would happen! I don’t know this kid. He wasn’t in the performance. He could turn around and slaughter us in our sleep. Or turn us in to Loghain or Howe for the bounty. Best case scenario he’s an extra apostate to deal with, and one who can’t turn into a bird and disappear when the templars show up. I’d never have taken Zevran or Sten either, if I didn’t know the future. You’re really shocked I don’t trust him?”

 “Are you even going to hear his story?”

 I sighed. “Of course I will. I’m probably the softest touch of all of us. Just don’t expect me to like it.”

 Alistair squeezed my hand and Aedan grinned. By unspoken agreement, we would wait until Zevran returned and Leliana was safe before discussing anything further. Sten and Shale returned, Sten favouring the young mage with glares that rivalled Prince’s. The apostate stayed put, curled in on himself, shaking every time he looked our way. I steeled myself against his pathetic sadness and stayed with Leliana, resting against Alistair’s armoured chest.

 As we sat I could feel the mana in the mage regenerating, and I gradually drew more of it in as it did. If he was uncomfortable, he wisely kept it to himself. I don’t know how long we sat, waiting for Zevran to return, but it felt like hours. It felt like a death vigil. Everyone was jumpy, startling at every noise, and I had to restrain myself from heading off after Zev half a dozen times. If he’s fine, you’ll just slow him down; if he’s not, you’re not the one who can help him. Steady girl. We sat, and Leliana got paler, her breathing more laboured. The sun peeked out over the horizon as dawn arrived.

 After an eternity, I could hear rustling, and then the caw of a crow, and Zevran burst out from the trees. He was sweaty and panting, obviously nearly exhausted, but he carried a pack full of herbs on his shoulder and a small vial triumphantly in his fist. Morrigan transformed right in front of us and plucked the vial from the wasted elf’s hands, and proceeded to rattle off instructions to Wynne that she’d obviously been given by Zevran. The former assassin made it to the fire and then collapsed, spent. Aedan found a blanket and covered him, curling up behind him for good measure. Morrigan sat beside me and I favoured her with a grateful smile.

 “Any trouble?”

 “None. Though the camp was a little further than he said. ‘Twas abandoned and the supplies were right where they were supposed to be. There was nothing there worth scavenging besides the herbs and the antidote. Even the food…” Her disgusted look gave me all the explanation I needed. She paused. “I admit to being impressed; the elf can run.”

 I felt a flash of warmth at the thought of our companions working together to save Leliana; I’d never really seen them come together like this before, though I supposed they had when I’d been burned. But Zevran had run himself into the ground to get the antidote, and Morrigan didn’t even try to hide the concern she felt. I contemplated teasing her, and decided to pass. I couldn’t do it after everything she’d done. I reached over and squeezed her hand, once, then settled back against Alistair to watch Wynne work.

 She’d apparently administered the antidote already, and I saw the empty vial roll away from her in the dirt. Leliana was still pale and sweaty, and I felt Wynne’s magic flare again as she tried another healing spell. It felt weaker than normal, and Wynne herself started to look a bit peaked. She reached into a nearby pack, and I saw her pull out a Lyrium potion. Worried about my favourite grandmotherly mage, I stirred to object, but Morrigan cut me off.

 “Allow me to try. It can’t hurt.”

 Wynne nodded, and Morrigan shuffled to her knees, reaching out to place her hand over the wound. I felt her magic flare, but again nothing changed. Leliana looked the same, and Morrigan, sniffing, tried again. And again, each time weaker than the time before. I squeezed Alistair’s hand in a death grip, and he squeezed back. I met Morrigan’s eyes, and she shook her head.

 Both of our mages were tapped, and Leliana still looked like death.

 Finally beyond guilt, I got up and approached the apostate. “You lied.”

 His face was white as a sheet, looking up at me. He practically squeaked as he spoke, and I wondered just how old he was. “I didn’t. I swear! It should have worked. I’ve used that antidote before.”

 “You’d better come up with a better answer than that. You know what I am, don’t you? I don’t think you want to be on my bad side.” I felt bad using the templar card. Almost.

 “I…look, I’m a healer. If I had any mana, I could maybe come up with something. Like this, I’m less than useless to you.”

 I looked over at Wynne, who met my concerned gaze with a similar expression. Morrigan broke in.

 “Let him try.   If he attempts to attack, or escape, we will end him. ’Tis simple; even were he a blood mage, we have him greatly outmatched.”

 Wynne nodded reluctantly, as did Alistair. I glanced at Aedan, but he was busy with Zev, who must have been in even worse shape than I thought, to have my brother so absorbed. I closed my eyes and released the mana I was holding.

 Hesitantly the apostate climbed to his feet, taking a few steps then kneeling by Leliana’s unresponsive form. I felt his magic flare, and a blue light seemed to pass from his outstretched hands into Leliana’s wound. Wynne and Morrigan both watched, apparently fascinated, as time stretched. After another eternity – which was probably only a minute or two – he nodded.

 “May I see the arrow you removed?”

 Eyebrows drawn in puzzlement, Wynne handed the arrow she’d fished out of Leliana’s leg to the elf. He stared at it for only a couple of moments, before holding it out to her again. “There’s a piece broken off. I’m guessing it’s still in there.” He gestured to the wound.

 Wynne accepted the arrow skeptically, squinting in the dim light. “Good eyes. If you’re right, we need to get that piece out.” She looked around, grimacing. “This isn’t going to be fun.”

 We shifted Leliana to lie back on the ground, and I went over to lie beside her, one arm holding her shoulders at Wynne’s direction. Alistair shifted his own weight to hold down her legs. We recruited Sten to boil a pot of water, and then, in the fire, heat a slender piece of metal Wynne produced from her pack. Morrigan, Wynne and the apostate hovered over the ugly, blackening wound, Morrigan providing a magic light to supplement the sunrise, holding strips of cloth we’d torn up to make bandages in the other hand. Wynne took the cooling piece of metal and began probing into the wound gently. The elf held the edges back, and blood oozed out of the wound. I looked away and tried not to vomit.

 Wynne almost jumped when the probe clunked softly against something hard, and we all shared a look of mixed relief and concern. Relief that we knew what the problem was; concern, because we had no good way of removing it. What I wouldn’t give for a scalpel and a pair of tweezers. Wynne muttered a warning to Alistair and I, closed her eyes briefly in what I assumed was some sort of prayer, and then carefully slid one finger into the hole the arrow had left.

 I’d vaguely expected it, at some point, but Leliana’s scream still caught me completely off guard. Alistair, fortunately, was not as surprised as I and managed to continue to hold her down as she thrashed. I pressed harder on her shoulders, murmuring soothing endearments that I doubted Leliana could even have heard, never mind understood. Wynne just grimaced and kept digging, more and more of her finger disappearing into the small hole. She finally must have bumped into something, because she grunted and shifted her hand, removing the probe.

 Now came the hard part – getting the rest out without letting it fragment into pieces. It felt like forever, as Wynne gently wiggled and teased the fragment of arrow out of Leliana’s inflamed flesh. Periodically Leli would half wake up, screaming and trying to thrash, but then pass out again for a while. With a triumphant gasp, Wynne finally lifted a hunk of black, nasty looking stone out of the wound. Nodding to the elf, she whispered.

 “Could you check?”

 He closed his eyes and the blue light resumed. In a few moments, I gasped as the wound edges drew together and sealed. The blackness around the entry was gone, and the skin came together like, well, magic.

 The wound in Leli’s thigh was closed. The skin was puckered awkwardly, and I felt sad about the unfortunate scar it would leave, but the bleeding had stopped and the skin had sealed completely. Shifting my glance to Leli’s face, I noted she wasn’t shivering quite as much, and the sweat on her brow was drying. With a sigh, Wynne ran her hands across the scar, and I felt her magic flare once more. It lasted only a few seconds, but the smile I saw on her face was the most beautiful thing I could imagine.

 “She will recover.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirty-Nine: Choices

 With Wynne, Morrigan, and Zevran all exhausted and Leliana still asleep, we decided to delay travel for another day to allow for recovery. I climbed into our tent, grimacing at the two new holes in the canvas. Aedan, Alistair, Sten, and Shale set up some sort of watch schedule, and after a few minutes to fix trampled tents and settle in, every quieted down and slept. I cuddled into my bedroll and was asleep in moments despite being alone in the tent.

 When I woke, the sun was shining fully down on the canvas, and the air inside the tent was stiflingly warm. Sitting up and scooping my tangled brown hair into a quick pony tail, I crawled out of the tent in my night dress, too worried to care who saw me. Alistair was sitting right outside, and he smiled sweetly at me as I emerged. A quick look around showed Morrigan sitting by the fire making poultices, Aedan and Zevran leaning casually back against a fallen tree trunk talking quietly, and Sten and Shale, still vigilant, watching the woods suspiciously. The mage was awake, huddled in a ball near Morrigan, with Prince still staring at him balefully. Of Leliana and Wynne, there was no sign.

 I plopped down beside Alistair, leaning in to rest my head on his shoulder. He handed me a hunk each of bread and jerky, and I took them gratefully.

 “You okay? You look tired. You should have woken me.”

 “I’m fine, love. Just sick of worrying. We need to figure out what to do with him.” He nodded in the direction of the young elf cowering by the fire. “You should have seen his face when he realised both of us were templars. I thought he’d soil himself.”

 I allowed myself a brief moment of satisfaction, and almost immediately felt guilty. I shrugged and changed the subject.

 “Wynne? Leli?”

 “Wynne was out a few minutes ago. She told me she’s keeping Leliana asleep to help her recover. She went back in there just before you came out.”

 I sighed with relief. “Thank God. If she…if we hadn’t…” I was unable to voice the terrible thought of a world without Leliana. Alistair wrapped his arm around me and squeezed slightly.

 “I know. We all love her too. But she’s going to be fine. And by the way, that thing you did last night was amazing. I’m impressed.”

 I heard a rustle, and Aedan and Zevran appeared, settling in beside us. Aedan squeezed my hand. “Me too, little sister. You’re amazing.”

 I blushed crimson, stuttering, trying to demur. “I didn’t…it’s not…Look, any of us would have done it if they knew how.”

 “Yep. But no one else did, did they? I’m assuming that’s how you saved Theron and Tomas?” Aedan squeezed again.

 I nodded, and Alistair kissed the top of my head. The blush just wouldn’t go away. I was embarrassed by their praise, embarrassed to be embarrassed, which just made it worse. I ducked my head and tried to interrupt the vicious cycle of blushiness.

 Zevran spoke up. “How did you even know we were under attack, cara mia? Even our lovely Orlesian Bard did not realise until it was too late.”

 I giggled. “It’s your fault, really, Zev. I woke up and had this itchy feeling down my spine…sort of like when Aedan makes you follow me, or when you try to play pranks on me while I’m meditating. Apparently living with a Crow has given me a sixth sense about these things.”

 I grinned as Zevran puffed out his chest. “Excellent! Then I shall claim the victory as my own, yes? Without me, you never would have known what that sensation was.”

 We all laughed, but I could see the underlying insecurity in Zev’s smile. He was feeling responsible for Leliana’s injury, thinking that as an assassin, he should have known we were about to be ambushed. I wanted to hug him and tell him it wasn’t his fault, but I knew acknowledging it would only make things worse. Alistair, in his own endearing fashion, solved the dilemma for me. He held his hand out to Zevran, and when the surprised assassin took it, Alistair pumped it enthusiastically.

 “You can claim any victory you want. Last night you saved Leliana’s life and nearly ran yourself to death doing it. You have our gratitude, and my respect. Thank you, Zev. Truly.”

 The shock on Zevran’s face was priceless, and I wished I had a camera. Aedan grinned at Alistair, pleased, and I chuckled softly, nuzzling my face into the brawny shoulder of the man I loved. I was impressed; in the game, it hadn’t seemed like Alistair had the maturity to recognise Zevran’s worth underneath all the Antivan’s bluster, and I was amazed at this more confident Alistair. Duncan’s death damaged him so deeply – I didn’t realise exactly how deeply until now. I shuffled to my knees, leaning over to draw Alistair into a soft, loving kiss, then pulling away and climbing to my feet.

 “I’m going to go check on Wynne and Leli.”

 The three men smiled and nodded, and I padded over to the tent the two women shared. Passing Morrigan, I smiled brightly at her and she nodded back, a small smile of her own looking so uncomfortable on her serious face. I called out quietly, and then entered when Wynne invited me in. Leliana was still asleep in her bedroll, but she’d recovered her colour and looked comfortably normal. I smiled at Wynne and sat beside her; the mage returned my smile. When she spoke, it was soft, but she didn’t whisper, and I inferred that we wouldn’t disturb Leli with a conversation.

 “How is she?”

 “She is fine, actually. I was just thinking about dispelling the sleep spell. She should be fully recovered, though she’ll need a bit of extra rest for the next few days.”

 I nodded. “How are you feeling?”

 “I’m fine. Just needed a bit of time for my mana to recover. I suppose most of us needed some time after last night.”

 Turning to Leliana, the mage muttered an incantation under her breath and I felt the brief flare of magic I’d become accustomed to. She placed her hand on the bard’s forehead, and Leliana’s eyes shot open with a gasp. Her eyes were wild, until her gaze settled on Wynne’s motherly face, and she relaxed.

 “What happened?” Her voice was gravelly, and I handed her a water skin which she drank from gratefully.

 Wynne and I took turns telling her what had transpired since the attack. She was visibly shaken by learning how sick she had been; despite this, she gave me a dirty look for getting Zevran to threaten the little mage. I just shook my head – she was too forgiving, by half.

 Wynne helped her to sit, and she pushed the covers back to gaze sadly at the ugly puckered scar on her thigh. I was sympathetic, but she was quick to dismiss that and assure me she wasn’t bothered by it. I decided it was a good thing Fereldans didn’t wear mini-skirts, Morrigan aside.

 Wynne and I helped Leliana dress. Her armour was damaged from both the arrow and the subsequent cutting to expose the wound, and we bound the pants together with strips of cloth as best we could. Finally ready, the three of us emerged from the tent, and I realised all eyes were on us. The elf mage hastily looked away when he saw me, and I grimaced. Alistair held his hand out to me, and I went to him, snuggling as much as I could into his armoured chest.

 Finally the group of us gathered around the fire with the mage who Aedan called Dariel across from me and Alistair. I tried to look non-threatening; by the pale complexion on the elf’s face, I didn’t succeed very well. Before Aedan could start talking, I spoke up, and Dariel flinched at the sound of my voice.

 “Look, Dariel? I want to apologise for threatening you. We needed to know what that poison was, but…I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry.” He refused to make eye contact, and I sighed and tried again. “You should know I’m not a real templar. Neither is Alistair. We’re not associated with the Chantry or the Circle. I’m just a girl with a few weird tricks up my sleeve. I wouldn’t have actually hurt you, I swear. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t hiding anything. It was a nasty thing to do and I really am sorry.”

 The elf risked a quick glance at me, and I tried to smile at him. He nodded, slightly, and looked away again, but he sat up straighter, his expression more confident. He still looked scared – unsurprising, really – but he didn’t look like he was about to wet himself any more.

 Aedan took over, introducing each of us in turn. The elf looked with interest at Morrigan, and with poorly disguised pity at Wynne, to my surprise. Once that was done, Aedan asked Dariel to tell the rest of us his story.

 “Start from the beginning, okay?” He smiled reassuringly, and Dariel nodded.

 “I was born in the Alienage in Amaranthine.” He had a surprisingly low baritone for such a small, young-looking boy, and I blinked in surprise. “It was…not a nice place to live. My mother worked when she could as a servant in some of the shops and things, and my father was a drunk. There was never enough coin to support all of us. I had an older brother and a younger sister, and most weeks, we were very close to starvation. Even the other elves looked at us with pity. Half the time we lived on the street, begging to survive.”

 I was surprised at the completely flat tone he maintained during his entire speech. Uncomfortable as the subject matter had to be, I expected more squirming or stuttering. More emotion. Then again, maybe he’d had to learn to suppress those emotions.

 “When I was seven, I was trying to earn some coin by doing odd jobs – cleaning out the mabari kennels, or sweeping floors, that sort of thing. If I got lucky, I’d get a few coppers for my efforts, which I used to buy food for my little sister. My brother tried to work too, for a while, but eventually got mixed up with a group of thugs. We didn’t see him much after that – he went to live with them, wherever it was that they lived. One day, in the kennels, one of the kennel masters saw me cleaning up, and lost his temper. He had always been scary, and I usually avoided going there when he was working, but we hadn’t eaten in two days and I was desperate. The kennel master got angry, and started hitting me, and calling me names, and I just…lost it. I don’t know exactly what happened, but the next thing I knew, the kennel was on fire, and his clothes caught…he dropped me and I tried to run, but I just couldn’t stand the thought of the dogs burning. I released as many as I could reach, but one of them had been burned and couldn’t walk. I half dragged, half carried the poor beast out, and when I put my hand over his burn, it just…healed.

 “Someone else saw it, and started screaming that I was an apostate. I panicked, and ran back to the Alienage. I’d heard stories about templars, and I didn’t want to be caught. But when I got home, and told my parents what had happened, my father was so angry…Mother tried to calm him, but he walked out. He came back a few minutes later with a human, a big, scary looking, dirty, smelly human. Father told me I was to show him what I had done to the dog. He hit my sister, who was only four, hard enough that her cheek split open; to give me a patient to work on, I suppose. When she cried out, I ran to her, and somehow, I guess, I healed her. The big man grabbed me by the arm, gave my father a bag of coin, and took me. I couldn’t stop him, he was too strong, and he just carried me away, crying. Later he told me my father sold me to him for two sovereigns and a promise never to reveal where I came from, to protect them from the templars.

 “I’ve been with them ever since. They kept me chained for the first few weeks, until I was too exhausted and frightened to run away. They spent every evening telling me how if I escaped, the templars would get me, or they’d go back and hurt my sister for revenge. I finally gave up on any hope of freedom, and just did what they said. They had an older mage with them, a drunk who’d escaped the Circle in his youth, but he taught me some healing and about herbs, as well as how to read, a little. I never learned any real damaging spells, on purpose, so they couldn’t use me as a weapon, but I was good at healing them after fights so they kept me. We’ve been travelling around Ferelden ever since, taking on mercenary jobs or turning to banditry when no jobs were available. This job was supposed to be the easiest – keep an eye out for a group of travelers heading into Denerim, we were given a sketch of you-“ he pointed at Aedan, “and then ambush you in your sleep. Bring you to Denerim and get some sort of reward. You weren’t supposed to hear us coming. They almost didn’t even bring me, thinking you wouldn’t be able to put up any sort of fight. Nobody told us you had templars, or I definitely wouldn’t have come.”

 As his story went on, I felt worse and worse about what I’d done. The poor kid had been sold into slavery, and I set Zevran on him and then threatened him myself. When Dariel finished his story, he stood and walked a short distance away, his eyes suspiciously bright. We all sat and stared at each other around the fire, pity on most of the group’s faces, guilt written clearly on mine.

 Aedan gestured us all a little closer so we could quietly discuss his story. No one seemed to disbelieve him – his distress certainly seemed real to me – and it would explain why he had not tried to cast a spell after I drained his mana, and why the thugs started with arrows, not a fireball. Much to my relief, no one looked even vaguely like we should be discussing executing him, even Sten, whose prejudice against mages, I’d noticed, was declining a bit over time. I briefly wondered why – he had never softened in game, that I was aware of – but put it off to think about another time.

 “The way I see it, we have four options.” I summarised my thoughts. “The first option would be take him to the Circle. Personally, I’m not keen on that one.”

 Wynne nodded agreement, to my surprise. “They would assume he was a blood mage, regardless of what we, or he, said. Greagoir might not be the fanatic that some Knight-Commanders are, but even he would either make him Tranquil or just execute him.”

 “And the way he looks at templars, he might just kill himself before we got him there. Or get killed trying to escape.” Aedan looked sick thinking about it.

 “Agreed. And if we aren’t taking him to the Circle, he needs to find protection from templars. I don’t think he’ll survive on his own. We could just take him with us,” I continued. “Another healer wouldn’t be a bad thing. I worry about him being an apostate, though.”

 “I am also an apostate, if you recall.” Morrigan’s tone was acidic.

 “Yeah, but you’re unlikely to panic and try to run at the first sight of a templar. And if we do get attacked, you can shapechange into a bird and escape. He’d be caught,” I explained, and Morrigan’s frown eased. “Besides, most templars are men. They’d all be too busy staring at you, drooling, to really try to capture you.” Morrigan smirked at my teasing, and I grinned.

 “We could recruit him to the Wardens, get him out of the Chantry’s jurisdiction.” Alistair piped up.

 “Yep. That’s option number three. The downside is that we’d need to get him to Redcliffe, to wait for his Joining, and I don’t fancy walking all the way back there. Plus he’d need serious training. And then there’s the whole…Joining thing.” Alistair, Aedan and I exchanged glances, and I could see they were also concerned about his ability to survive. The rest of the group looked mildly confused, but no one asked.

 “What about the Dalish? They know how to hide their mages from templars. And Lanaya said they were desperately short on healers – she was talking about having to find a way to trade another clan for someone to be her apprentice.” Aedan picked at the long grass poking up from around the rock he was sitting on, his face pensive.

 “And that’s option number four. It’s still a bit of a trip, but not as far as Redcliffe or the Circle, and it should be safe.”

 Wynne scolded us. “Don’t you think he should have some say in his fate? You’re all discussing him like he’s some sort of imbecile or child. Maybe he’s had enough decisions made for him?”

 I could feel my face reddening with guilt as I realised we had indeed been talking about him as though he didn’t really exist. Looking around, I could see Aedan and Alistair also looking embarrassed, none of us wanting to make eye contact. I’m acting like I’m still playing the game. What an ass! I sighed.

 “I’m going to go talk to him. I need to make amends anyway, might as well be at the same time as I ask his opinion of his options.”

 “You want me to come with you?” Alistair’s face was concerned.

 “No, I’m good. I’ve got this.”

 Alistair kissed my forehead softly and Aedan pecked my cheek. Still wearing just a shift for sleeping, and carrying no weapons, I approached Dariel slowly.

 “Dariel? Can we talk?”

 He stiffened at my voice and whirled to face me, hands up defensively. I sat down on a nearby stump, hands held out, making no sudden moves. He watched my face, and I kept my gaze on his, hoping to project openness and calmness. After a few silent moments, he relaxed just enough to crouch nearby, out of arm’s reach but close enough not to have to raise my voice. Good enough. I cleared my throat.

 “What do you want of me?” I could hear something unspoken at the end of the sentence, whether it was ‘shemlen’ or ‘templar’ I wasn’t sure, but the tone made it obvious it was meant as an insult. At least it remained unspoken. I’m going to assume that’s a good sign.

 “Your opinion, actually.” I had to strain to keep my voice soft and civil. “I was wondering what you would do now, given the choice.”

 “It’s not really up to me, now is it?” He couldn’t keep the fear from his voice, and I felt ashamed all over again.

 “But if it were?” He stared at me, mute, and I continued. “The way I see it, you’d actually have five options. One would be to leave us behind and strike out on your own. Try to find some way to survive.”

 “Like you would all just let a filthy knife-ear walk away after attacking you, and injuring a human.”

 “Listen, could we leave the name-calling out of it? There’s an elf I consider family over there somewhere, and I’ll thank you not to insult his race.” His eyes widened somewhat and I smiled. “Anyway, as far as leaving is concerned…they would, honestly. Let you leave. If you walked away right now, none of us would stop you as long as you headed away from Denerim. We’d probably even give you supplies.”

 Still staring at me with an unfathomable expression, he finally nodded.

 “So that’s option one. Two would be to go the Circle, throw yourself on their mercy, and hope for the best. I wouldn’t recommend that one, personally. They do owe us a favour, but real templars are a bit, well, rigid.” I thought I glimpsed a slight smirk, and felt a little bit of hope. “Three would be to stay with us as you are, and hope we don’t get accosted by real templars. Four would be to join the Grey Wardens.”

 His mouth fell open in surprise, and I almost laughed. “I won’t lie; joining the Wardens is dangerous. But it does put you outside of the Chantry’s influence. The last option would be to go to the Dalish and ask to join them. They know how to avoid templars.”

 He scoffed. “The Dalish would never take me.”

 “Normally I’d agree with you, but we know a clan who also owes us a few favours. And they are short on mages. Actually, they’re just short on people, honestly. It wouldn’t be easy – I’m sure there’d be many who would treat you badly because of where you’re from, and you’d have to work twice as hard as anyone else to be respected, but I think they’d take you.”

 He looked skeptical. “And you’d spend your favours on me? I doubt it.”

 “Why not? Look. We believe you. You’ve consistently drawn the short stick at every turn. You didn’t choose to attack us, and in fact, you actually didn’t. You were a slave, and if your masters happened to be mercenaries who took the wrong contract, that’s not really your fault, is it? We’re willing to help you, if you’ll let us.”

 I smiled at him, trying to draw him out, even a little. “So the question remains. What would you like to do now?”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Forty: Dazed and Confused

 I agreed to give Dariel some time to think about his options, and headed back to the fire. Alistair tried to hold me in his lap, but plate isn’t very comfortable for sitting on, and my butt was soon numb. Despite that, I could feel myself drifting off to sleep with every lull in the conversation, and even Alistair looked a bit droopy. Zevran and Leliana had gone back to sleep in their respective tents, and I talked Alistair into joining me in ours for a nap. He reluctantly removed his armour – he looked like he’d decided never to take it off again after being caught in an ambush in just clothes, but I whined until he complied – and we curled up on our adjoining bedrolls, Alistair spooned behind me, holding me with his chest pressed up against my back.

 His breathing smoothed out to a soft, regular rhythm as he fell asleep, but despite my exhaustion, I found my mind spinning. Between wondering what other ugly surprises we were in for in Denerim, wondering what Dariel would decide, and the butterflies in my stomach from sleeping in the arms of the most gorgeous man in all of two worlds, it took me a while to drift off. When I finally did, I was plagued by guilt-ridden dreams of standing over Dariel’s corpse, bloody knife in my hand, with all of my friends staring at me in horror, and all I could say was ‘I didn’t really mean it…’

 I woke to Alistair crushing me to his chest, stroking my hair with one hand, shushing me. I gasped as the dream faded, and then settled down to sob for a couple of minutes until the horror subsided as well. When I explained my dream, he pulled me closer again and kissed my forehead. Somehow I’d been turned the opposite way so I was facing him, and I marveled at his strength again. He didn’t tell me it wasn’t my fault, didn’t try to tease me about it; he just held me until I cried myself out. Once the shuddering stopped, he leaned in and kissed me; it wasn’t passionate, like in the night, but just warm and loving and comforting.

 “You’re really quite perfect, do you know that?” I smiled at him as he hovered over me, stroking my face with his fingers.

 “You’re biased.” He grinned at me. “But I don’t mind.”

 “What time is it, do you suppose?”

 A sudden, loud growling noise took me off guard, but Alistair laughed and patted his stomach. “Dinner time, I’m guessing.”

 I giggled and sat up, looking around the tent for some clothing that was a little bit more appropriate than the nightgown I’d wandered around in all morning. Alistair was strapping on his armour, and I grinned but avoided teasing him. I figured it would take him a while to relax and drop his guard again, though that was probably a good thing. It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you. I sighed and hauled over my own armour, shooing Alistair out of the tent so I could change.

 When I emerged, everyone was gathered around the fire. Alistair was already wolfing down a bowl of what I assumed would be soup of some sort, and Leliana handed me my own bowl as I settled beside him on the ground. Dariel was sitting with Aedan and Zevran, eating as well, and I wondered if sitting with the only other elf in the party made him feel less frightened. Not that Zevran was like the rest of the elves I’d met, overall. Which was a good thing – the servile attitude from most of the elves in Redcliffe and Ostagar made me distinctly uncomfortable. I smiled warmly at him; his expression, while still cool, was definitely less aloof than before.

 Once everyone had eaten, we all sat back to chat and tease each other like we always did in the evenings. Dariel’s eyes seemed to follow the conversations curiously, though he never spoke; I wondered what evenings had been like with the band of mercenaries. They probably tortured bunnies for fun, in front of him. That image made me feel ill, and when I shook myself to try to clear it, Alistair leaned in.

 “You okay?”

 “I’m fine. Just way too active an imagination.”

 He looked at me curiously, but then we all got distracted as Aedan stood and cleared his throat.

 “Tomorrow we head to Denerim. We will camp outside the gates tomorrow night, once we’ve ascertained what the situation is getting into the city. Wynne, Leliana, Alistair, Zevran, Sierra and I will be going into Denerim.” Prince whined, and Aedan laughed as he stroked his ears affectionately. “And Prince, of course. Shale, Sten, and Morrigan will stay camped outside. Dariel – you have a choice. I think Sierra went over your options with you, and you have some time to decide if you want. All we need for now is to know whether you will be accompanying us into Denerim, staying outside at camp, or leaving us altogether. Any plans?”

 Dariel nervously cleared his throat. “I don’t think me going into Denerim is a good idea. I could be recognised, and word would get around that we failed. I think…if it’s alright with you, that perhaps I will stay at camp. And then I can make my decision while you’re away.”

 Aedan nodded, and pretty much everyone around the fire directed a smile, a nod, or some other friendly gesture his way. Sten and Shale were the exceptions – and I couldn’t even start to figure out what a friendly gesture would look like from Shale, so maybe I had just missed it. Sten wasn’t openly hostile, which was probably the best we could expect. I did notice some interesting glances being exchanged between Dariel and Morrigan, and tried not to shudder as I considered that concept. Morrigan was becoming my friend, and I really didn’t want to think about her like that. Ugh. Wonder why it doesn’t bother me with Zev and Aedan? Huh.

 After a bit more chatter, everyone started heading to bed. Alistair and I, both entirely awkward, took turns changing into sleep clothes while the other waited outside. Zevran was openly laughing at me as I stood outside in my nightgown after I finished changing, and I had to acknowledge the idiocy of two people sleeping together but being unable to get changed in front of each other. To avoid further ridicule, I ducked back into the tent more quickly than I might have otherwise, and I forgot to knock. Or whatever you do on a tent.

 When I looked up, I froze. Alistair was kneeling on his bedroll, without a shirt, eyebrows raised. I stared at him, struck yet again by how incredibly well built he was. After carrying me halfway across Thedas I shouldn’t have been surprised; his abdominal muscles stood out in a six-pack, his pecs bulged like a body-builder’s would, his shoulders were broad and rippling as he reached for his simple tunic, and the tan lines on his arms emphasized the obvious strength in his biceps. I swallowed, mouth dry and hanging open, caressing his impressive physique with my eyes. When I was able to return my gaze to his face, he was smirking slightly despite the deep blush. He abandoned the shirt, lying down on his bedroll and holding his arms out expectantly.

 “Warm night, don’t you think?” His grin was sly and I rolled my eyes as I crawled over beside him and got pulled into an embrace. The skin of his chest was soft against my cheek, and the smell of campfire and sweat that I had become used to since first coming to Thedas flooded my senses. I stroked my hand through the soft fuzz decorating his chest, and he smiled at me.

 “I never thought in a million years I would be lying here with a beautiful woman in my arms….”

 I laughed and interrupted. “…While not wearing a shirt?”

 His blush intensified, and I had to wonder how he stayed conscious when all of his blood had rushed to his skin. Which brought to mind an image of all of his blood rushing somewhere else, and suddenly my complexion matched his. I struggled to keep the dirty thought from bursting out of my mouth without permission.

 “Have I told you today how incredibly handsome you are?” I snuggled into his chest, determined just to relax and go to sleep. Which was harder than expected, given the proximity of the sexy, half-naked demi-God I shared a tent with. He kissed my forehead, and then settled in.

 After several minutes of clenching my jaw and trying not to fidget, I finally sat up, startling Alistair who was half asleep. I reached over him, grabbed the shirt, dropped it on him, and waited until he put it on. I refused to rise to his bait as he smirked at me unabashedly, finally settling back down into his now clothed arms. It was probably good for his self-esteem, I decided, though it was doing nothing to improve my blush. Despite the shirt, I spent a good portion of the night lying awake in Alistair’s arms, convincing myself over and over that I wasn’t going to be the one to start anything.

 I finally fell deeply asleep right before it was time to get up for the day. Typical. I hazily enjoyed a scorching kiss from Alistair before he scrambled from the tent, leaving me to get my armour on. Once changed, I ate a few bites of breakfast, and then dozed against Alistair’s shoulder after he emerged in his armour. He finished my breakfast as well as his own, as usual. Alistair looked very smug whenever he caught me yawning, and both Zev and Leli gave us amused looks. I had to be chivvied into helping pack, and then got basically dragged along by the hand as we started walking.

 The day passed in a blur, literally, since I could barely keep my eyes open. I stumbled along, clinging to Alistair’s hand, hoping he’d guide me over any obstacles because I really wasn’t paying that much attention. Lunch on my feet was aggravating, because I couldn’t eat and be dragged along by the hand at the same time, so I had to concentrate on my surroundings for a while. I even accepted a cup of wretched Ferelden tea warmed by Wynne’s magic, hoping to God there was enough caffeine in it to justify the vile taste. I felt enough better afterwards to actually wonder if she’d spiked it with something, or hit me with a rejuvenation spell while I wasn’t looking. I wasn’t about to complain.

 The afternoon was an unsurprisingly better experience because of it, and I was finally feeling back to myself enough to smile and joke with Aedan and Leli while striding along beside Alistair. Alistair and I took some gentle teasing for the fog we’d both been wandering in all morning, though neither of us was willing to admit to the reason. ‘I couldn’t sleep because it suddenly occurred to me that he’s naked under his clothes’ doesn’t sound like much of an excuse.

 Shale and Sten walked together quietly, as usual, while Zevran often ranged ahead of us, scouting for bandits and the like which should have been more common the closer we got to Denerim. Dariel and Morrigan were also together, heads down, talking quietly, and when I looked around I realised I wasn’t the only one who was disturbed by it. Alistair and Aedan both looked vaguely grossed out, and again I wondered why it was so much worse for everyone imagining the two apostates together than it was to picture Zev and Aedan (or me and Alistair, for that matter).

 It occurred to me suddenly that allowing Dariel to be recruited into the Grey Wardens might be a bad idea – it would take away any control Aedan had over Morrigan’s ritual, if she could perform it with a completely unsuspecting Dariel who was sleeping with her anyway. I decided to mention it sometime in Denerim, when neither mage was nearby, so I didn’t have to worry about being overheard. I’m so getting yelled at by Aedan for not telling him about her ritual sooner.

 I sighed, just shaking my head with a wry smile when Alistair shot a curious look my way. We made it to Aedan’s chosen destination slightly before nightfall, just outside Denerim but far enough from the gates not to be spotted, and hidden in a forested valley. There was a little lake a ways away, where Sten, Morrigan, and Dariel would be able to replenish their water while we were in Denerim. No one felt like sparring, so we set up camp and Aedan sent Morrigan off in bird form to check on the situation at the gates. She was under strict orders not to enter the city itself, but just to survey the gates and return. Sitting together around the fire waiting for her, I was all edgy nerves and anxiety, and I wasn’t the only one looking a little tense. Alistair held my hand, his calloused thumb rubbing reassuring circles on the back, but his own jaw was clenched, and I guessed his outward calm was all illusion. I snuggled a little closer, hoping that just being there could offer some comfort.

 After a bit, Leliana asked if I’d walk around camp a bit with her; sensing she must want to talk to me about something, I agreed and hauled my tired butt off the ground to follow her. We didn’t go far before she found us somewhere to sit, and we settled in. I waited to see what she wanted to discuss. I’d assumed it was Marjolaine. I was wrong.

 “So…you and Alistair.”

 I blinked, surprised. And then giggled. I’m such a girl! “Um, yes…?”

 “You are aware that he is very inexperienced, yes?”

 “Uh, yeah. So he said. Dare I ask where you’re going with this?”

 “I just…I suspect you also do not have much experience, no?”

 “Leli, what on earth…?”

 “I…worry. That you two will perhaps not have such a pleasant experience, when you finally get to that stage.”

 “Seriously? Here I figured you wanted to talk about Marjolaine or something, and what you want to discuss is Alistair and I having sex?”

 “I’m feeling quite serene about Marjolaine, actually, thanks to you. I thought about what you said at length, about how she will not stop until I make her, and I realised…you are right. Someone must prevent her from hurting anyone else. I will kill her. I won’t feel guilty about that. And it does not make me a bad person. I am fine, actually.”

 I smiled, happy that I could help her pre-empt her crisis of conscience. Shaking her head, she returned to her previous investigation, and I blushed.

 “You are avoiding talking about it, Sierra.”

 “I…yeah, I am. Look, this is awkward. I’m…I have next to no real experience, Leli. But we’re not going to injure ourselves or something, you know. We will figure it out.”

 “Real experience? What does that mean?”

 My blush deepened, and she looked at me curiously. “I…well, let’s just say that information is a lot more universally available, where I’m from.”

 She looked confused and made a ‘give me more’ gesture with her fingers.

 I sighed. Using the thumb and first finger of my right hand, I pinched the bridge of my nose, struggling to contain my embarrassment. “It means that there are plenty of books and things easily available. Instruction manuals, fictional accounts…recordings of other people having sex. Not that I spent a lot of time watching them, or anything, but…let’s just say I’m familiar with the mechanics of sex, at least. I haven’t done it much, but I think I can figure it out. Especially if I don’t have to talk about it!”

 She grinned, her expression delighted. “Books? Like the ones Wynne reads?”

 “Well, yeah, those, but more. Like serious step-by-step ‘how-to’ instructions. Or detailed descriptive accounts of sex itself. It’s called erotica. There’s a lot of it. So I’m not quite as clueless as you might think.”

 “I was thinking I might have to give you some pointers.”

 “We’re not even there yet, anyway. It’s a bit premature, don’t you think?”

 “You share a tent with the man, and you think that contemplating your first time together is too soon?”

 I grimaced. She has a point. “I just…he hasn’t really made any moves, yet. I’m thinking he isn’t ready.”

 “And does it not occur to you he might be waiting for you to make a move?”

 “Well, sure, but I’m not going to.”

 “Why ever not?” She looked irritated, and I shrugged.

 “It’s…I…it’s complicated, Leli.”

 “Oh, by the Maker you two do make it hard on yourselves, yes? Alright, well…can I at least suggest you tempt him a little? Make sure he knows you will not say no?”

 “He bloody well knows that by now!”

 “No, dearest, he does not. Trust someone with a bit more experience with clueless men. The only reason he has not yet ravaged you is because he thinks, deep down inside, that you don’t want him to.”

 “After last night, if he doesn’t know, he’s an idiot.”

 “Oh? Tell me!” She clapped her hands in glee.

 I sighed again. I told her about the fiasco with his tunic, and she was in hysterics by the time I was done.

 “That’s why you were so dazed this morning? You could not sleep because he took his shirt off?” Her laughter was gaining in volume, and I hushed her to avoid having to explain the joke when we went back.

 “Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. You’re just saying that because you’ve never seen him with his shirt off.”

 She grinned wickedly, a curious gleam in her eye that reminded me of Zevran in his more blatant moments. “That good?”

 “Uh, yeah. Better. Don’t you even think about trying to get a look!”

 She pouted cutely, and I laughed. “I still doubt Alistair has thought about what your response means, really. If anything, he would probably take it as a rejection.”

 I groaned. “So what do you expect me to do? I want it to be his idea. It needs to be, really, for a variety of reasons. I can’t just go say ‘Hey, Alistair, wanna fuck?’ I can’t do it.”

 “No, no. Maker! You are hopeless!”

 “I’m aware.” I stuck my tongue out, my wry smile escaping, and Leliana laughed.

 “Okay this is easy. You just need to tempt him. Do something that says, obviously and unavoidably, that you are available.”

 We spent a few minutes scheming, and by the time Morrigan returned, I figured we had a working plan. It was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever done, but I was committed. Or perhaps I need to be committed. I’m not sure which.

 We headed back to camp when Prince’s barking heralded Morrigan’s return, and I avoided eye contact with Alistair, trying desperately not to blush. He looked at me curiously, and I frantically sought to concentrate on what Morrigan’s news could be, distracting myself from my embarrassment. I didn’t have to wait long.

 Morrigan’s news was a relief, but also seriously concerning, all at the same time. Apparently the gates were entirely unguarded. She spent several minutes watching, and besides a large number of heavily armed mercenary groups moving through, noted nothing interesting. No one watching, definitely no one stopping even the least reputable from passing through. Assuming the more-well-known of our group – Aedan, Alistair, and Leliana, primarily - wore helmets, there was probably no one who would care who we were or what we were doing in Denerim.

 Aedan and Alistair were intensely concerned what it could mean. The city could be teeming with mercenaries who would turn the Grey Wardens in for coin, though blending in might be easy. We wondered what exactly was wrong, and what must have happened for Loghain to have abandoned the gates. We discussed it for a while, every imagined scenario worse than the last, when finally Aedan interrupted our idle speculation.

 “We won’t be able to figure it out until we get there, so we might as well make a plan to get started with. It seems like we might be able to just wander in to the city as we are. As long as we’re all armed and armoured, and wearing helmets, it sounds like we will fit right in.” Morrigan nodded agreement, so Aedan continued. “We will go to the market first, and those who need can get measured to have armour made or repaired before rumours spread of our existence. Sierra tells me she knows of a good armourer. We can then find somewhere to stay, hole up in an inn somewhere. We need to find somewhere we can be inconspicuous. Or at least buy privacy.”

 Zevran and I spoke simultaneously, then turned and grinned at each other. “The Pearl.”

 Oh God, I can’t wait to see Alistair in a brothel.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Forty-One: Denerim Ho!

 “After that, we can split up into groups to accomplish our tasks,” Aedan continued. “We need to check in with Brother Genitivi, deal with Marjolaine, maybe find some work to make a bit of coin, and Sierra wants to talk to a dwarf in the market district. Did I miss anything?” He looked around expectantly. No one spoke. He nodded. “Alright. I’d rather not come to Loghain’s attention, if we can avoid it. Helmets for everyone at all times. Be careful! Now let’s eat, and then get some sleep. We leave at first light.”

 Leliana and Zevran started bickering good-naturedly about what we were going to have for supper. I thought to help, but realised I had a couple of things I needed to ask Aedan before we got to Denerim, just in case.

 “Hey Aedan?”

 “Yes, little sister?” He came over and plopped next to me, smiling tiredly.

 “Little? Who says I’m little? For all you know, I’m your older sister.”

 “No way am I being the youngest of three! You’re the baby, and that’s official.”

 I looked at him and mock-glared. “Well you certainly act like the middle child, I’ll give you that.”

 Alistair, watching the banter, looked confused. “How do middle children act?”

 I sighed. “You know, jokes aren’t funny when you have to explain them. On Earth, there’s a bunch of people who love to blame all their problems in life on being the middle child. Just…never mind.” I shook my head. “Anyway, I have some questions for you, Aedan.”

 Aedan grinned. “What’s that thing you say? Oh yeah. Hit me.”

 I giggled, and punched him on the arm hard, making him wince and complain. Alistair guffawed and fell backwards, overbalanced in his heavy armour. This set off laughter all around the camp as Alistair flailed around on his back, legs askew, cursing indignantly while we laughed. Aedan rubbed his arm ruefully, and gave me a dirty look which I ignored because he couldn’t hold it without his lips curling up into a grin. He finally gave up and joined in the laughter, then shuffled over to help me pull Alistair back upright. Once the hilarity had settled, I faced him again.

 “Seriously, now. I need to know what you know about Dwarven nobility.”

 “What do you mean? From what you’ve said, you probably know more than I do.”

 I stammered slightly, trying to think of a way to explain my dilemma without admitting that on Earth their lives were actually a game. They’d accepted the concept of a theatre performance, but I worried what they’d think if they knew just how it was treated.

 “I…alright, so, in the performance, they show some of the things that are happening in other parts of Ferelden around the same time you met Duncan, Aedan. The thing is, I don’t know how much of that is true, and how much might have been fabricated to fill out the details in the story. I know some of it is true – it’s how I knew Solona was in trouble in the Circle, for example – but I don’t know if they got the details correct.”

 His eyes were narrowed, his expression somewhat skeptical, but he didn’t say anything. I knew that he knew I was hiding something. I hoped he’d let it go. Finally he nodded.

 “What do you need to know?”

 “Alright, first…tell me, what are the names of King Endrin’s children? Do you know?”

 Aedan scratched at his stubble irritably, face screwed up in concentration. “I don’t…the eldest is Trian, I remember that. And I think he had a sister and a brother, but I can’t remember their names.”

 “Sereda and Bhelen.” Leliana walked over and sank gracefully to the ground across from us. “Bhelen is the youngest.”

 I looked at her curiously, but she merely shrugged. “Bard, remember? Politics are quite important in my line of work.”

 I grinned at her. “Thanks. And in all your political knowledge, I don’t suppose you’d know what Sereda’s general outlook was like? What sort of person – er, dwarf – she was?”

 “Not really, no. Though I heard a rumour once that she had a paramour from the Warrior Caste. Quite the scandal.”

 I laughed. “Leliana, I love you, you know that, right?” She looked shocked and pleased. “That’s exactly what I needed to know. Listen, this dwarf I want to talk to? He’s the warrior she was involved with.”

 Aedan interrupted. “You keep saying ‘was’. I remember you telling me about a conflict over the dwarven throne, but is Sereda involved?”

 I shook my head. “She’s dead, I expect. Let me start at the beginning. Endrin had three children. Trian was expected to be the heir, but he was unpopular. Too snobbish, not diplomatic enough, too full of himself. Some of the Deshyrs – the dwarven equivalent of a Landsmeet – were muttering about putting Sereda on the throne instead, making Trian paranoid that she was trying to steal his crown. The youngest, Bhelen, took the opportunity to pit the two of them against each other, killing Trian and framing Sereda for it. Which, of course, neatly cleared the path for himself to take the throne. Sereda was sent into the Deep Roads alone to die, and her second, Gorim, was exiled and became a merchant.

 “Unfortunately for Bhelen, Endrin figured it out before he died. There’s even a rumour that Bhelen poisoned his father to hurry things along. Either way, before he died, Endrin named another noble to be his heir, once he realised what Bhelen had done. Now there’s a fight between that noble, a Lord Harrowmont, and Bhelen. When we get there, you’re going to get to choose who becomes King, eventually. The problem is, you’ve got two crappy choices.”

 I rolled my eyes as they all snickered at my earth language. “Okay, okay. So Bhelen is a big sleaze. Killing his siblings, and possibly his father…not the sort I’d want as King. Harrowmont, on the other hand, is completely honourable. Sort of insufferably so, to be honest. But Harrowmont is too stuffy, too traditional. The dwarves are practically on the verge of extinction from the darkspawn, and their traditions are making it impossible for anything to change for the better. Their poor, the casteless, are treated worse than elves in the Alienage, and that’s saying something. No one can choose, or change their station, and the major form of social advancement is for a female to get pregnant with a bastard child from a higher caste and hope it is a boy. Anyone who ever does anything wrong is banished to the surface and never allowed to return. They are slowly destroying themselves.

 “Harrowmont will doom the dwarves, and honestly, he doesn’t have enough support to stay on the throne for long. On the other hand, Bhelen will start to rectify some of the problems if he becomes King, but that still means putting a disgusting excuse for a person on the throne. Plus he’ll disband the council and become a despot when he meets any opposition.”

 “Two crappy choices indeed – the honourable man who’s a terrible King, or the terrible man who makes a not terrible but not wonderful King. So what are you hoping to accomplish by approaching the dwarf in Denerim?” Aedan looked uncomfortable, shifting around and fidgeting. I didn’t blame him – I wouldn’t want to make that choice either.

 “I don’t…know, for sure. Maybe just some perspective. And…I thought we could offer to bring him with us. He’s a talented warrior, and he might like the chance to see Orzammar again. Maybe he’d even want to be a Grey Warden? I don’t know. But I was just thinking that any information he can offer would be good, you know?”

 We all sat quietly, for a moment, considering. I was mostly procrastinating. I had something else to ask Aedan, and I knew it would be even worse than the previous conversation. Finally I sighed. I reached out to rest my hand on Aedan’s.

 “I have another question to ask.”

 “You do know that when you hold my hand in sympathy before the conversation even starts, it sets a certain…dismal tone to the whole thing, right?”

 “Sorry. You’re right, you’re not going to like this one.”

 “Just go on, then, and ask whatever it is that’s going to make me pull out my hair and gnash my teeth.”

 “I…” I hesitated. Alistair took my other hand in silent support, and I sent him a small smile of thanks. “Do you have any idea where Nathaniel Howe is, in the Free Marches?”

 I’d never seen Aedan’s expression change so fast. From bemused and puzzled, to spiteful and murderous in two words. Well done. He stared at the fire, refusing to meet my gaze.

 “I never knew Nathaniel well. He and Fergus were friends. Whenever that man visited, I was stuck entertaining Thomas and Delilah.” His anger was tightly controlled, but it frightened me. I tightened my grip on Aedan’s hand, trying to draw him into looking at me.

 “I know, I know. Rendon Howe killed your family. Our family.” I corrected myself with a grimace. “He deserves to die, preferably slowly. I get it. But Aedan…Nate doesn’t know what his father is doing. He’s been in the Free Marches for a decade, and Rendon sent him there because he knew Nathaniel was too honourable to follow in his footsteps. He’s not to blame for what happened. He’s actually…a good guy, surprisingly.”

 Aedan glanced at me, surprise warring with the ongoing anger on his face. “You know Nathaniel?”

 I nodded. “He was in the performance. He came back wanting to kill you, not knowing the truth. You ended up conscripting him into the Grey Wardens. You became friends, eventually.”

 Aedan’s shoulders were tense, his body coiled as if to spring, and he looked away from me again. “If I ever become friends with that…that…murderer’s son, just put me out of my misery. Slit my throat, or something. To answer your question, no, I don’t know where he is. I assumed Kirkwall, but it could have been anywhere, I suppose.”

 He leapt to his feet, obviously agitated, his eyes clouded. “I need to…walk. I’ll be back.”

 He stalked off, anger emanating from him in waves. Prince jumped up and jogged over to his side, Aedan’s hand automatically touching his head as they left camp. I made eye contact with Zevran, who nodded and silently slipped into the woods to follow.

 I slumped, and Alistair’s armoured arm wrapped around me. I turned into him and pressed my face into his neck, more than grateful for his soothing presence. His strong hand rubbed my neck gently, and I hummed.

 “He will come around, you know.” Alistair kept kneading the tense muscles in my neck. I dropped my head, giving him better access.

 “I know. And he will like Nate, I’m sure, after a while. It’s hard for me to see it from his perspective. They may technically have been my parents, but they didn’t raise me. It doesn’t hit me the same way.”

 We sat quietly for a few more minutes, when it occurred to me I had a question for someone else. I looked up at the beautiful bard watching us with a wistful smile.

 “Hey Leli?”

 “Yes?”

 “In Lothering…did you know many of the townsfolk?”

 “Many, but not well. I spent most of my time in solitude or with the other sisters. Why?”

 “Did you ever meet the Hawke family?”

 “I didn’t, although I have heard of them. The oldest girl, Marian, was known to break up the odd bar fight that would break out in Dane’s Refuge. Even the templars were in awe of her fighting skills – she was apparently a talented warrior. Why?”

 “You just told me what I needed to know. Thanks.”

 We finished dinner, ate, and sat by the fire for a while, but Aedan didn’t return. At one point Zevran came into camp briefly, grabbed food for the both of them, and slipped away into the shadows again. Afterwards Alistair and I took turns changing and collapsed into our tent. I couldn’t sleep, at first; between worrying about Aedan and worrying about Denerim, my mind just wouldn’t quiet down. Alistair was equally restless, and we just held each other quietly in the dark. I heard stirring when Aedan and Zevran finally returned to their tent, and then the camp was quiet.

 I must have fallen asleep at some point, because I woke with a start in the morning, jumping right out of my bedroll before I caught myself. It was still dim in the tent, early morning light just starting to filter through the canvas. I glanced over at Alistair to see him still sleeping peacefully. He was curled on his side around a space where I’d obviously spent the night. His face was angelic, asleep; if he wouldn’t have killed me for it, I’d have called him cute. As it was, his chiselled features filled me with a warmth that was anything but maternal, and I couldn’t help myself. I carefully eased myself back into the space I’d vacated, enjoying his warmth surrounding me. He shifted slightly, clutching me to him, and I smiled. I reached up to kiss his chin, then trailed kisses down the side of his neck softly. He woke when my lips reached the neck of his tunic, his hand coming up to fist in my hair and pull my mouth up to his. His lips were soft, his tongue teasing against my own for entry, and I had just moaned and deepened the kiss when someone rapped on the side of the tent with a stick.

 “Rise and shine, lovebirds! Our illustrious, alluring, incredibly handsome leader tells me it is time to move.”

 Alistair pulled away from me with a disappointed moan. I just sighed.

 “Zevran, having my brother called ‘alluring’ in front of me is not making me want to get out of this tent any faster. You know that, right?”

 A mocking laugh was my only response. Alistair wriggled into a sitting position, stretching and yawning like a cat, making me giggle. I leaned out of the way while he grabbed his armour and pulled it on over the clothes he’d worn to sleep. I arched an eyebrow at him.

 “What? We will be staying at an inn tonight. We can have them wash our clothes. Does it really matter how clean they are until then?”

 “Ooh. I wonder if they have any nice smelling soap to wash them in.”

 “If the place is called the Pearl, it must be fairly nice, right? I’m sure they do.”

 I snickered. Just you wait. “Ah, yes. Nice. Now would you hurry up so I can get changed? I’m not wearing a nightgown under my armour, thanks.”

 It took probably fifteen minutes for those of us going into Denerim to be ready. We were leaving our tents and camping gear, but we had loaded up all our packs with all the trinkets, armour pieces, and odds and ends Aedan had found and squirreled away during our travels. I guess Bodahn’s discount was less epic than advertised. My pack weighed a ton, and I felt bad – I knew I wouldn’t be able to carry it the whole way, so Alistair was going to have to carry two. Though watching him pick them up was always amazing – he lifted both, awkwardly, in one hand like they were nothing. I wonder if I can get saddlebags made for Prince! I giggled and shrugged off a strange look from Aedan, who seemed to be acting as though the discussion the night before had never happened. I was fine to try to forget it – not that it would change what I had planned.

 We all put our helmets on. Leliana and I shared an anxious glance, remembering the lice debacle, but then suited up. Aedan had even found some sort of light leather armour for Wynne. I doubted it would be very functional for her, but I also doubted most mercenary groups had an obvious Circle mage with them. Zevran was quick to compliment her on the outfit, and I thought she might actually throttle him. Ten more minutes of learning amusing Fereldan curse-words later, and we were ready to go.

 It took only an hour to walk from our secluded valley to the gates. We stopped when the gates had just become visible to watch for a few minutes. Morrigan had been right – there were frequently groups of armoured men passing through with no one stopping them. Several heavily-guarded caravans also went through. A closed carriage – pulled by the first horses I’d seen in Ferelden – had more guards than the biggest caravan, and I wondered who was in it. Anora? A carriage didn’t seem Loghain’s style. Aedan signaled us all to move forward once it was out of sight. We marched along almost in step, Aedan and Alistair leading, and I successfully managed not to gape as we passed under the enormous portcullis. I’d never been in a castle, living in Canada my whole life, and the stonework was fascinating to me. It felt a bit like wandering into medieval England or something.

 The portcullis lead into an enormous open square. It vaguely reminded me of the market district from the game, but much, much busier. The chantry occupied one entire edge of the square, all wrought iron and dark stone, looking quite foreboding. It was nothing at all like the quaint churches I’d seen pictures of in medieval England. The middle of the square was a virtual labyrinth of stalls, all occupied by very loud, vehement people insisting on the quality of their wares. There were hundreds of people wandering through, haggling with vendors and talking amongst themselves. Armour clanking, groups of guards and mercenaries hurried around the edges. The amount of noise in the walled-in area was deafening, and I was disoriented for a moment as it overtook me.

 The thing that stood out the most, though, was the smell. It was a combination of boys’ locker room, outhouse, and rotten eggs, and I had to work at suppressing a gag. I could almost taste it on my tongue when I tried breathing through my mouth, and that was worse. I couldn’t see any of my companions’ faces, but based on the hesitation of our group at the edge of the open market, it wasn’t pleasant for any of us. I wondered how long it would take until my poor nose adjusted. I had expected wet dog, not…this.

 Aedan finally took initiative and began leading us across the square. People squeezed around us on all sides as we were swallowed into the press, and the stink of unwashed human became even stronger. I put on hand on the back of Alistair’s armour and held on for dear life, certain that if I were to trip, I’d be trampled before anyone could help me. Holding on had another benefit though – I was able to look around far more than I otherwise would if I had to pay attention to where I was going. So I stared, thankful for the helm that hid my likely stunned expression.

 I noticed almost every stall had at least one armed guard, and the stalls with the most expensive items had several. I whispered to Leliana, who was practically rubbing against my back in an effort to stay close together, if that was normal, and she shook her head. I saw someone who couldn’t have been anyone other than Sergeant Kylon standing at the edge of the throng, his face looking tired and frustrated. I pointed him out to Aedan – I knew they’d never let me go with them, but he could offer some paying work later. I didn’t see anyone who I could recognise as merchants from the game, but there were so many of them it would have been easy to overlook.

 Aedan worked his way up to a stall and asked for Wade’s Emporium. The merchant looked like he was about to shout at Aedan for wasting his time, but he took a second look at a group of six armoured, well-armed people wearing full helms and a mabari, and just mutely pointed. Wade’s shop, as in game, was a small building, not a stall, and stood a little bit away from the busy central area. There were two guards standing outside the door, and they warned us not to make trouble, then stepped aside to let us in. There was another guard standing inside the door.

 As we moved back to the counter where Herren stood, we could hear clanging from behind him, and in another moment we could see Wade himself, working at a forge. The surprisingly small man was throwing nasty looks in the direction of the guard, and appeared to be mumbling to himself, barely paying attention to the piece he was working on. I could see it was a shield – an enormous one, bigger even than Alistair’s. I wondered who carried such a thing. Without looking, totally engrossed in glaring at the guard, he shifted the shield and raised his hammer, and before anyone could cry out to stop him, he brought the hammer down on his own hand. His scream was horrific and made my ears hurt, and the armourer dropped to the ground, clutching at his wrist. There wasn’t much blood, but his fingers were bent unnaturally and the whole thing already appeared to be swelling.

 With an oath, Herren raced to the back of the shop, dropping to the floor beside Wade and throwing his arms around the little man. Wade was keening now, a high-pitched wail of pain, and it made my jaw ache from how hard I was clenching my teeth. I found myself wrapped from behind in Alistair’s arms just as I felt Wynne rush past. Aedan joined her, and Herren let the rogue herd him a few feet away while Wynne tenderly grasped Wade’s mangled hand. Looking at it, I was sure that without healing magic, he would never work again. I felt Wynne’s magic flare, and in moments the screaming stopped. When she released his hand, it looked back to normal.

 Wynne helped him up, and he stood shakily, holding his hand out and staring at it in shock. Herren ran over and grabbed Wynne in a bear hug, spinning her around the room, and we all chuckled. Wynne’s face was red but she looked pleased despite her embarrassment. The rest of us finally made it to the back of the store and officially met Wade and Herren. After introductions had been made – using first names only, and avoiding mention of the Grey Wardens – Herren hurried to the front, had words with the guard, who was ignoring the commotion and leaning lazily by the door, and after some yelling the guard left. Herren stuck his head outside, I assumed to talk to the two stationed there, and then came in and locked the door.

 They actually offered us tea and to have a seat in the back room, which was where they lived. I was right – they were a couple, at least if only one bed was any indication. We all crowded into their tiny living area, Wynne being given a chair while the rest of us sat on the floor, and Herren poured us tea. Only then did Wade go into his tale of woe in typical Wade style, with much gnashing of teeth and bemoaning his fate.

 He told us that several weeks prior, Loghain had withdrawn his troops and most of the guards from the market. He had been using the army to maintain the peace, supplementing the few token guards (and many incapable younger sons of Denerim’s nobility), but with riots in the streets and even the nobles in direct conflict, he had withdrawn all but Kylon and a handful of guards and thrown everything at protecting the Palace and quelling unrest in the area where most of the nobles resided. As a result, for a while, petty theft and organised crime had risen, most of the servants who worked outside the noble district stayed away, and the streets hadn’t been swept or the sewers unclogged in weeks, thus the smell. The merchants had all taken to hiring mercenaries for protection. Of course, the more mercenaries there were in town, the more crime increased, and then the mercenaries had started banding together and extorting money from their former employers.

 Street violence had rapidly disappeared – no one wanted to pickpocket one of the mercenaries, and the different mercenary bands had fought their way into some sort of agreement – but the extortion was ongoing. Wade had been distracted by the ‘guards’ they’d hired, who were now expecting protection money and not really protecting him anymore, and his injury had been the result.

 They hadn’t heard any news of what was happening in the noble’s district, and the docks were unchanged, though many of the mercenaries had banded together and rented warehouses to bed down in instead of inn rooms, to my relief. I had suddenly pictured us unable to rent rooms. The Alienage was still closed, though it was apparently not that hard to sneak in given the lack of guards. Vaughn Kendalls had been reported deceased, and Howe was the Arl of Denerim.

 To my surprise, Aedan admitted to Wade that they were Grey Wardens. He’d been the one most adamant that no one blurt that secret. I didn’t think Wade and Herren would turn us in, especially with Wynne having healed him, but it still made me a bit nervous. Both men, however, were quite welcoming. They told us that one of the biggest bones of contention in the city was Loghain’s claim that the Grey Wardens had betrayed the King – apparently several of the nobles who’d been with the army vanguard had survived and contradicted his assertions. A couple of the more outspoken ones had been imprisoned within the Arl of Denerim’s estate.

 After much discussion, we got down to the business that had brought us to the armourer in the first place – armour. Wade insisted on doing the repairs on our armour for free, and after salivating after the drake scales and dragon scales we had brought, insisted on making armour for Aedan and Zevran from the drake, and some heavy plate for Alistair from the dragon scales. Aedan offered him money to bump our orders to the top of his list, but he refused that coin as well. They also offered to pay us quite well for the scavenged armour we were planning to sell – Herren thought he might be able to pay the mercenaries in armour, and the pieces Wade couldn’t repair he could use for parts. Wade and Herren were effusive in their thanks to us for Wynne’s healing, and even Herren refused money, but we all felt a little like we were taking advantage.

 Aedan looked thoughtful while Wade was discussing the weight of the armour with Alistair, and seemed to make up his mind on something. I raised my eyebrow at him, but he just shook his head. Wade took measurements on everyone whose armour he was making or repairing; for me, all he was doing was making some adjustments to the breastplate and repairing one torn bracer. Aedan had tried to convince me to get a heavier set of armour, but Wade actually helped me talk him out of it. Not only was I not strong enough to wear it, but what little skill I had in battle came from being mobile. His adjustments to my armour were mostly to enhance that mobility; decreasing it with heavier armour just didn’t make sense. He loaned Leli a spare pair of leather pants until hers could be fixed.

 Once we were finally set, we thanked Wade and Herren for their help and the information. We headed out, and I saw Aedan pull aside one of the mercenaries and talk to him quietly while we all filed through the door. We formed up and headed out into the chaos of the market. Now that we knew what was going on, things were much more obvious. The merchants were afraid of their own guards, and small groups of more heavily armed, intimidating looking mercenaries were circulating, stopping to talk with individual merchants. They didn’t even try to hide the pouches of coin changing hands. Aedan’s shoulders stiffened, and I knew we were probably all equally irritated.

 Even the Chantry had only a few templars guarding it, and standing in a line in front of them were more mercenaries. I wasn’t religious, and definitely not Andrastian, but it sickened me to kn