“Yes?” she asked.
Maerithel experienced a split-second of indecision, fear, and the always unpleasant knowledge of impending judgment. The feelings Templars always brought forth in her.
But now there was no need for such fears, after all.
“Oh, um, yes, Warden,” nodded the guards, respectfully, moving aside. “Welcome.”
For her, so recently of the Circle, the title was still strange to her. Yet as a gesture of respect toward her new status? She would accept it. Even if it was foreign.
She nodded back to the guards—not coldly, but firmly, and she passed them by without incident. It was strange how quickly she had become used to being a Grey Warden—not just to the physical strangeness of it, but to the social niceties.
And they were welcome. After all, if she had been wandering into Lothering with only herself, her telltale ears, and her mage’s staff, she would have been scowled at, met with suspicion, scorn, and unwelcome glances. And, surely, she would have been confronted sooner rather than later by Templar soldiers with cruel smiles, who would ask her why, exactly, she was here, and where was her Circle, and did she have her papers?
Not so as a Grey Warden. Even as supposed outcasts, it appeared that there were few who actually believed Loghain’s mad lies, and she had encountered very little real antagonism. Here, even with her party of rather colorful compatriots, she was treated with respect, even honor—even as a supposed traitor. Even as a knife-ear.
At least that was something to be gained from the “honor” of being a Warden. Not a life she would have chosen for herself, but a sharp tongue and a few ill-timed words in defense of a fellow mage had meant that her former, caged life was over. Now she’d been given an honor nobody wanted—the honor of admission to a dark and shadowy society whose aspects included constant danger, a shortened lifespan (that would end within a few decades in a violent, solitary death beneath the ground), nightmare-troubled sleep, and new powers that included hearing the thoughts and presences of the darkest and most evil creatures beneath the surface of Thedas—the Darkspawn.
Respect. It was an odd thing. After her life as a Circle Mage, after the years of being spit upon as an elf and as a mage, it was almost worth the trade. And her companions were better than no companions at all. Mostly. The young Grey Warden warrior Alistair was amusing company, for instance, constantly entertaining and annoying the companions in equal measure with his nonstop witty banter and idle musings. He was brave in battle, but also almost painfully naïve—young and rather starry-eyed. His humor was welcome to Maerithel, but not so much his innocence, which she already felt might be troublesome when tested in earnest.
Hedge witch Morrigan was Alistair’s opposite—guarded, cynical, abrupt, occasionally rude, and impatient. But she was also unexpectedly kind and insightful in small, unguarded moments, and Maerithel was hopeful that their travels would allow Morrigan to let the mask slip a bit (she had the feeling that Morrigan was intensely lonely, and would have been happy to offer friendship). Circle mage Wynne, meanwhile, was quiet and resourceful in a fight, if occasionally rather too inclined to proselytize or give advice where none was wanted. Yet Maerithel secretly enjoyed Wynne’s endless homilies, advice, warnings, and suggestions—she didn’t remember her own mother, and very little about her early life in the alienage, and something about Wynne’s gentle fussing (annoying as she could sometimes be) soothed her.
Feldhar, meanwhile, was happy to be a dog. Just a dog. A wonderful dog saved from death. And that suited Maerithel just fine. He was the only companion she did not have to figure out. A gift from the gods; he only wanted love, companionship, and food. If only all of her companions were as simple.
They had traveled everywhere, stopping nowhere long. The endless villages and cities, the endless stares of the poorest of Ferelden, begging them wordlessly for succor and hope. The palpable presence of the Blight as it stretched across the land, a foulness she sometimes felt she could actually taste in the air, just as she could see its stain upon the lands through which they traveled. It was as if her new sight allowed her to see beneath the surfaces of things, but all she could see beneath the thin fragile skin of the world now was a cancer and a darkness eating it from the inside out.
And now that shadow, that rottenness, was within her too. Biding its time. Waiting to transform her, little by little, into a monster.
If she lived that long, of course.
So many towns, so many fruitless attempts to garner support, to resolve issues so that the damned nobles and politicians would stop their bickering long enough to realize what Loghain had done, and what he was ignoring in his madness.
They’d recruited Zevran, a graceful and eerily adept Crow assassin, a week or so back, and his lack of lock-picking prowess notwithstanding, he’d already proven to be a capable party member, and an entertaining and oddly joyful companion (she still couldn’t decide if everything was a joke to him… or if nothing was). They’d also recruited Leliana, a slightly odd young woman, just the day before, and Maerithel still wasn’t sure what she thought of her. The girl was beautiful—slight and redheaded, and just as adept with her bow as she was with her lute. But Maerithel couldn’t figure her out—one moment she was a ruthless fighter and spy, the next she would talk about her faith in the Maker as innocently as a child.
Now they were hastening through the village, intent upon gathering the supplies they needed before the next push on to Denerim. But already, Maerithel felt conflicted—so many of the Lothering villagers watched her small party with yearning, with pleas unspoken on their lips, as the danger to their town marched ever closer. There was an almost tangible feeling of impending doom to the little village, palpable as smoke, and Maerithel despaired of making any real difference in the small time they had here. Still, they had done what they could, helping families, farmers, and the Chantry with little errands and favors, little things that might help people escape to safety before the next grim battle.
Then came the man in the cage.
They would not have noticed him at all, her companions, so silent and still he was, but Maerithel had happened to glance up, and found herself staring into eyes that were so fierce and so unhappy that she almost staggered. She stopped, looking at the big man standing motionless there. The cage was large, easily 14 feet in height, and able to accommodate a large man standing upright, even a warrior like the man before her. It was rudimentally if sturdily built, of cleverly overlapping strips of metal in a rough beehive shape. There was an area of the cage to the right that served as a privy but that was all.
“Hello,” she found herself saying. “What are you doing in here?”
The man stirred, blinking as if from a waking dream, looking at her with a patience and acceptance that were just as fierce as the despair she’d glimpsed.
“I am where I ought to be,” said the man. “That is all you need to know.”
“Why are you in there?” she asked again, quietly.
“What?” He shook his head.
“Why?” she asked again. “Are you evil?”
At first, it seemed he wouldn’t answer. But something in her face seemed to change his mind. He sighed. “I committed a crime,” he said. “For which I am being justly punished.”
“What did you do?” she asked.
He spoke bluntly and brutally: “I murdered a family.”
She blinked, shocked in spite of herself. “Why did you kill them?”
“I was not in my right mind,” he said. His words were like chips of stone, unassailable and plain, but his voice was unexpectedly lovely—rich, deep and emotive.
“What happened?” she asked, lulled by that beautiful voice in spite of herself. He looked at her curiously, as if not quite believing what he saw.
“I had been attacked, injured… when I awoke I...” For the first time, he hesitated slightly. Only when he paused did she realize that he was younger than she had thought at first—not decades older than herself, as she had first assumed, but only a handspan of years, if that.
“Tell me,” she said.
“I had been robbed,” he said again. "Injured, and rescued." He responded as if he could not help himself, his eyes on hers, but faintly questioning, as if trying to puzzle her out. She withstood the scrutiny without moving. And her eyes never left his.
“I awakened, still not quite myself, and only saw that my sword was gone,” he said at last. “The sword that is—in my culture, to me as a Qunari of the Beresaad, it is more than a sword, it is a reflection of self. In my confusion, rage and panic, I attacked before I understood the situation. Only then did I realize that I had killed my rescuers, not my robbers.”
She looked at him steadily. “What did you do then?”
“I mourned the dead and waited for the proper authorities,” he said quietly.
“I see,” she said. She looked at him curiously. He was heavily built—tall, strongly muscled, yet unhandsome in the traditional sense. Yet he was young, despite that ageless and beautiful voice. He had a rather sorrowful, heavy face, as if he had already mourned everything in creation, and like most Qunari he was a metallic color, his skin a rich bronze. And, curiously, no horns. He had stern eyes that were almost flame-colored, and striking, ash-white hair braided closely to his scalp and then gathered at his neck.
“And now you’re here,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “Where I deserve to be.”
“Maerithel, perhaps we should not bother the poor man,” said Wynne. “He may find it cruel of us to speak to him so.”
Morrigan eyed him. “Still, ‘tis obvious he’s a fighter. He might be useful.” She quirked an eyebrow at the man. “Could you be useful, if we set you free?”
The man looked at Morrigan without answering, and she flushed slightly, then tossed her head.
Watching him, Maerithel ignored her companions and leaned slightly closer to the cage. “Are you sorry?”
He looked swiftly back at her, and his eyes went dark. “If I were not sorry,” he said, “I would not be here.”
She didn’t speak right away, then nodded slowly. “I believe you.”
“As well you should,” he retorted. “I do not lie.”
“What’s going to happen to you if we leave you here?”
“What will happen to me in any case,” he said, shrugging. “I will remain here until my death.” He considered. “And probably, after.” The frostiest glimpse of humor, as if this pleased him.
“Tell me who you are,” she said.
“I am a Qunari warrior,” he answered. “My name is unimportant. Names do not matter under the Qun.”
“Are you good in a fight?”
He smiled for the first time. “Of course.”
She approached the cage and circled the flat strips of iron with her hands. She did not look away from him. She saw him, so clearly. The hopelessness, the guilt… but beneath it all, with that sense her Warden’s sight gave her, she saw it—a potential for light. A kind of purity.
“Do you want to stay here?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “It is what I deserve.”
“What if I asked you to come with me?” she said softly.
He frowned in disapproval. “I would not do so.”
“Ah,” she smiled. “But what if I gave you something you want even more than to stay in that cage?”
“And what would that be?” His voice was dry with disbelief.
“A chance for atonement,” she said.
His eyes flew to hers then, and she saw something more terrible than the despair she had glimpsed at first—hope. Then he looked away again.
“It does not matter,” he said. “You cannot remove me from the cage.”
She looked at it coolly. “We probably could,” she said. “But I’d rather do it legally. Who do I talk to?”
He was quiet, thinking for several seconds before responding. “What if I told you that I do not want you to take any action at all?”
She smiled again, and he realized in turn how young she was, herself. The eyes had been so old. But she was young, with an oval face and reddish-brown hair. Disquieting dark eyes, and a burn scar on her pale cheek. A wide, generous mouth. Not beautiful—not nearly as striking as Morrigan, for instance, but she drew the eye. A mischievous face, as if she were used to laughter.
The laughter was there, beneath the surface, even now. “You’d be lying,” she said.
He stepped forward to her, and put a hand upon the meshwork, just above hers. Their fingers touched, and their eyes met, although neither commented. “You might try their Revered Mother,” he said at last into the silence. “At their Chantry.”
“We’ll be back,” she said. “Just wait for us—wait, what is your name? Surely you will provide it if you are to travel with us.”
“Sten,” he said. He inclined his head ever so slightly, and she did the same. “I am Sten of the Beresaad.”
“Just wait for us, Sten,” she said. “We will return for you.”
“Return or not,” he said. “It matters little to me.”
“I thought you said you did not lie,” she said, smiling.
He stared at her, then shook his head. “I suppose I must believe you,” he said, frowning. “Even though I find your manner and attitude disturbingly casual in the face of current circumstances.”
“Believe me,” she said. “I do not jest about my comings or goings. If I promise something, I will come through.”
“All right.” For a moment, his voice and glance were soft. So much hope, and so much hopelessness, in a single glance.
She kept her tone light, attempting to hearten him. “You are not alone. We’ll be back. Meanwhile, try not to get into trouble until we return with a key.”
He scowled at her, and she grinned, as if they were already comrades.
“Farewell, Sten of the Beresaad,” she said.
“Farewell, strange woman,” he said. The awkwardness of it made her laugh again. He was so oddly formal.
“I am Maerithel,” she said. “And technically, I am an elf.”
“You’re still a woman,” he said dryly. “By all appearances.”
“So I have been told,” she said.
“Farewell, then, Maerithel,” he said quietly. “If you do not return, thank you for this momentary diversion.”
“I’m nobody’s diversion,” she said. Then she turned back toward the chantry with her strange procession of followers.
As for Sten, there was no question in his mind that she would actually succeed, so he composed himself to his previous state of hopeless, dreaming silence and dismissed her from his mind with an effort.
He watched the people around him and wondered at the foreignness of their lives. These people were such dreamers; they were like toddlers, grasping for the shiniest things within reach, and utterly unconcerned with whether or not such baubles would make them happy or prove useful in any way. That man over there, who was quietly sweeping the steps of his store? He had an interesting style of movement that was almost grace—under the Qun, he would have made a fine soldier, perhaps an archer. The woman to the left who was gossiping with a neighbor? He had been listening to her for days now, and he knew that she was far more than a gossip, that she was subtle and brilliant, and that she missed very little. Under the Qun, she would have made a superb tamassran or perhaps an elite member of the Ben-Hassrath. While here she was simply a wife and a feeder of children and chickens.
These people, these lands. He did not understand them.
And yet they fascinated him. He remembered his shame upon arrival, when his brothers among the Qunari had laughed at his incessant questions, at his insistence upon watching the sailors and learning the strange ways of these seafarers that seemed so much more fragile than those of the Qunari and their terrifying dreadnoughts. And once ashore, he had watched every military drill, analyzed every skirmish, questioned each person they had met.
And yet he was no closer to understanding them. They seemed fragile to him—fragile both mentally as well as physically. They were so easy to break in a fight. They—
He looked down, and somehow there she was before him, the dark-haired elf. And still with that slight smile again. He shook his head, but she was still there. It was, undoubtedly, actually her.
“I am rarely surprised,” he said. “But I confess that I did not expect to see you again.”
“Oh, ye of little faith,” she said. “I’m wounded.” But she laughed, opening her slender fingers to reveal the small grubby key in the palm of her hand like a magic trick, and he smiled in spite of himself. She was just so proud of her accomplishment, and her face shone as she opened her hand to reveal his salvation.
He took a deep breath in spite of himself, watching as she unlocked the cage door and stepped back, half in uncertainty and half out of a desire to give him space.
He paused, then stepped out, stiff and awkward after his confinement. Several villagers were watching them with decidedly unfriendly faces.
“Come on, Sten,” she said, using his name as if she’d known him forever. “I’ve gotten you some clothes, and a room at the inn where you can clean up and refresh yourself. Then we should probably get going. You’re not going to be very popular here.”
He inclined his head slightly in thanks and humility. “I do not think you have chosen wisely in doing this,” he said in a low voice. “But I thank you for my freedom. I will do my best to be worthy.”
She smiled again. “You’d better. Now let’s go.”
He could think of nothing else to say. It was simply another mystery to add to the many that puzzled him about this place.