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The Cages of Our Choosing

Chapter Text

“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.”

Hmm. Warden.

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.

Then Lothering.

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. 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 and 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—

“Sten.”

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.

He followed.

Chapter Text

Sten acclimated fairly quickly into Mae’s small group, primarily because he was so quiet, but also because Maerithel was determined that he should.

All together, they were an odd party, there was no denying it. A ragged band of cynics and dreamers hoping to stop an evil that had confounded whole armies.

But somehow the group was a good one, and aside from the frequent sniping between Alistair and Morrigan, real disputes were rare. Each group member, oddly, seemed to balance another. Sten’s silence balanced Alistair’s boyish chatter, and his occasional dour heaviness was met in equal measure by Leliana’s irrepressible lightness and warmth.

Even Morrigan’s cynicism was a balance against Zev’s determined laughter and humor, to his refusal to give in to such feelings. While he could sometimes be a bit much, after a few conversations Maerithel had begun to realize how hard-won, in fact, the elf assassin’s optimism truly was. He had survived a staggeringly horrific childhood, had sold his body and skills in service to brothels and assassins without choice throughout his youth, and yet still he had managed to retain that sense of irrepressible joy. She could not find it in her heart to fault him now that he was among real friends and his servitude to the Crows was over. It made her happy that he laughed his way through most of their fights, that he teased his companions unmercifully, and that somehow he had seemed to have regained something intangible upon being accepted into their group.

Meanwhile, Maerithel was amused to notice that Morrigan had begun flirting almost constantly with Sten, who responded to her interest with varying degrees of outrage, confusion, and weariness…

And then finally, one day, he answered.

“Oh, Sten,” said Morrigan on that final occasion, sighing as her eye slid up and down his formidable figure. “Finally, will you not admit to me that you have given some thought to the idea that you and I might be… intertwined?”

“Indeed I have,” said Sten, and Morrigan was so surprised that she actually stopped in the middle of the road and stared at him. “You have?” she asked delightedly.

“Oh yes,” said Sten. “I think we must finally act upon these forbidden feelings of ours and consummate. We are not blushing maidens, after all, but comrades. The Qun does not forbid such actions, provided they are not tied to any lasting relationship, and I have come to appreciate your finer qualities.”

Have you, now?” purred Morrigan.

“Oh, yes,” said Sten. “Indeed, I have had to restrain myself from speaking, until this moment. My passion would not let me do otherwise.”

“I could have said it no better myself,” said Morrigan, and her elegant black eyebrow raised mischievously. “So tell me, when and where will this consummation take place?”

“Well,” said Sten. “We will need some fairly extensive preparation.”

“Preparation?” Morrigan frowned, a line appearing between her perfectly arched brows. Meanwhile, Maerithel caught a glance from Zevran, brimful with amusement, and grinned back. Leliana’s eyes danced, and even Wynne looked cheerful—and a little more wicked than usual. Alistair, meanwhile, frowned, looking both entranced and confused in equal measure.

“Yes,” Sten mused. “Preparations. They are, of course, extensive for my people in such matters.”

“A-all right,” said Morrigan, dubiously. “Just tell me what you need. I am sure we will be able to come to some arrangement.”

“Well,” said Sten. “I am afraid I cannot promise much pleasure, in the scenario you face. It is not a component of Qunari intercourse, after all—perhaps understandably so, as our focus is primarily on breeding. But my main concern here, as your comrade, is your survival.”

“Survival? In what way?” asked Morrigan. “I can protect myself, surely, you have no need to worry on that account.”

“Alas, it is a complicated subject,” said Sten. “For instance, you will need a variety of accoutrements for your own protection: Armor, a helmet, and a metal bar—that is absolutely most essential. You will need something to bite down on, you see, in case I try to nuzzle.”

Morrigan could not have looked more horrified if he had used the words “pink” or “adorable.” “Nuzzle?” she asked. “Nuzzle?”

“What’s ‘nuzzling’?” asked Alistair in a loud stage whisper, confused.

“I think I have just died a little,” said Zevran. “Of embarrassment and, of course, from actual, physical shame.”

Leliana patted Alistair. “I’ll explain it to you later, pretty one,” she said softly, and he immediately cheered right up again.

Zev sighed, and Mae and everyone continued eavesdropping.

“Well,” Sten answered, ignoring Alistair. “It can be hazardous, nuzzling. At least in the throes of Qunari intercourse. How strong are your teeth?”

“How strong are my teeth?”

Morrigan’s face! Mae covered her own with her hands and tried to stay solemn. But it took every bit of magic she possessed to do so. Then Leliana giggled, and she threw her a fierce look to stay silent. This was the best theatre she’d ever experienced and she didn’t want anyone to ruin it.

Meanwhile, the epic seduction was proceeding.

“Yes,” asked Sten, with absolute seriousness. “You never know what a Qunari may latch onto in the throes of passion, or which body parts may be inadvertently sacrificed. You are, in fact, lucky you are not a male, or I would have additional warnings to utter…”

“Um…”

“Meanwhile, I suggest that you outfit yourself with an iron pry bar. Heated, of course, in the fire, or it may not get my attention. A deeply glowing ember is ideal there, one that will retain its heat for a considerable length of time.”

Morrigan’s expression was the best thing Mae had seen in years. “Ah,” she said. “Hmm.”

“I look forward to our union,” said Sten. “However, you should be aware it can in fact take several hours. But that should not matter to one as hardy and lustful as you.”

Morrigan coughed, a delicate, ladylike punctuation note. “Sten.”

“Yes?”

“Perhaps… t’would be better… if we did not in fact, proceed.”

“Are you sure?” he asked, and finally there was a glint of a smile. “I am at your service, and wholly willing to satisfy your curiosity, however unpleasant you may find the task.”

“No,” said Morrigan, laughing finally as she saw the joke. “I think I shall leave my curiosity unsated.”

Maerithel chuckled, then Sten met her eyes with a twinkle in his eye and a rare grin of his own, and she caught her breath. Because, as she had come to discover, when he smiled, it lifted his entire face from its usual air of despondence and into an unexpected and transitory handsomeness. It was also the only time he looked as young as he actually was.

This time, when he grinned at Maerithel, her heart lurched, just a little, and she stumbled in her walk along the road, in spite of herself, because she had been caught imagining a momentary future in which she was free to act. Instead, here she was, back to reality. Fucking reality. Fucking unexpected pebbles. Fucking Fereldan roads. Fucking Archdemon. Fucking Blight. Fucking everything and being a fucking Grey Warden.

She then spent far too much of the rest of that afternoon’s walk wondering, grumpily and not so idly, whether pry bars were really essential accoutrements to Qunari lovemaking. And in decidedly not looking over at Sten.

Even if she wanted to.

Chapter Text

Meanwhile, day after day, the travels of Maerithel and her companions forged a bond between them, and night after night, story after story, and song after song beside their campfires, they grudgingly gave one other their trust.

By day, Sten’s sword would sweep in a shining circle and cut down, in the nick of time, the ogre, the warrior, or the mage who would have had Maerithel’s blood, or Wynne’s. Alistair would leap with beautiful precision into the fray just when Leliana’s strength was failing her, or when Zevran’s daggers had weakened in spite of himself. Morrigan would transform into the hideous spider shape that sent enemies fleeing with terror, even as Wynne’s barriers and protections healed them and saved them from wounds, from harm, even from death. Feldhar protected them, meanwhile, with his teeth, his courage, his unfailing love. And occasionally, with his breath.

The months passed, of friendship and comradeship and learned trust.

And while the words were never spoken, a fact had emerged: They would, each of them, have died for one another. They had become a family.

Camp rituals became regular and unvarying. Sten and Alistair would erect the tents, with Maerithel’s help, so swiftly and efficiently that it was like magic (and it sometimes was). Leliana and Wynne would neatly build campfires and assemble nearby resources. Morrigan would refill everyone’s water skins, then cross the clearing to set up her own little space apart from the group. Then, upon making camp, everyone would rotate turns to go wash in the nearest available water source. Alistair, Morrigan and Sten would then head off to find kindling or firewood, while Leliana used her bow to bring down a nearby deer, rabbit or other creature to feed their stewpot. (But never a nug; Leliana was mysteriously fond of the creatures, and her one request of Maerithel had been that she never eat a nug on their travels, and Maerithel had complied, and forced the others to do so, as well.)

Speaking of which, the cooking at their camps varied hugely and often entertainingly. Alistair was, surprisingly, a creative and careful cook, dependably serving genuinely enjoyable roasts and stews (along with a preponderance of cheeses), while Morrigan’s vile messes were so terrible, aside from her nearly magical abilities to brew teas or potions, that most were barely palatable. Wynne’s were dull, if slightly lacking in salt or herbs, but never terrible and occasionally even tasty. Sten was a soldierlike and capable cook whose meals were rather dry, but bearable (evidently meat the texture of leather was an important part of life under the Qun), while everyone loved the nights Leliana cooked most of all, because she managed to coax, through herbs, simple measuring, watchfulness and mysterious craft, a series of meals that would have made the Empress herself weep with joy.

After the meals, came the storytelling, the sharing of past experiences. These moments fascinated Maerithel, not least because Sten so visibly tried to remove himself, and yet he could not quite stay away. His campsite was farther away, and yet each night, after the meal, he lingered and talked with the rest of them. Morrigan, who had started out the journeys remote at her separate campsite, joined them more and more frequently, and even spoke, rarely and sparely, of her difficult life with Flemeth. Leliana told them of her fascinating and sometimes tragic experiences as she had trained to become a bard. Alistair spoke movingly of his childhood as a bastard and unwanted guest, while Zevran told them, in circling language and surprising eloquence, of his life and childhood under the Crows.

Maerithel spoke too, at times. Of her childhood in the alienage, of her life in the Circle and her desperation to emerge. Eventually, in parallel, Sten had even spoken as well—haltingly and yet eloquently of his life under the Qun, of his desire to see the world and to see stars that were strange to him. Wynne shared as well, talking of her early days in the Circle, and of the forbidden love she had left behind long ago—a Templar. After they had saved the child, Connor, Wynne had even gone on to tell them, painfully, the true ending to her story—of the child she had borne and been forced to give up. After that story, Alistair had made no jokes, and Mae had gone to her tent feeling sick and sad.

For Maerithel, Wynne’s story proved the most haunting. Forbidden, of course. Of course it was. She had begun to hate the word. It seemed that all of the perfectly reasonable things that people desired most in this darkened world—love, companionship, simple contact or acceptance—were forbidden, and for no just reason that she could see.

It was like the Circle all over again.

Feel your power but do not release it.

 

 

Wish, but do not acknowledge.

 

 

Look, but do not touch.

Think, but do not act.

You cannot have what you want.

She had left the confining space of the Circle only to find that the world still had too many walls.

Oh, yes. She had begun to experience a sense of the forbidden, herself.

Sten camped at a slight remove from the rest. For this reason, just as she regularly did with Morrigan, Maerithel made it a point each night to go and sit with him, and she had actually come to look forward to those singular instances. They were unique and separate from the rest of her day in so many ways.

Unlike Morrigan, who had begun to tease Mae for her constant questions and curiosity, and who had laughed at her (yet with real gentleness and affection behind it) when Mae had asked about Morrigan’s formidable powers, Sten did not joke or parry. Every conversation with Leliana or Morrigan was a game, yet talking to Sten was a strange and oddly enjoyable experience for Mae precisely because he did not play. He merely answered, with a deceptive simplicity that was almost elegant.

There was something about him that was—in the strangest way—restful to her. He spoke little, but he listened thoughtfully, and with grave attention. If she went to him with a problem, he would strip it down to its core and then, many times, present her with a conclusion that, in fact, no problem had ever existed.

As she began to get to know him, Mae saw that there was something beautiful and yet terrifying about his perception of her world, her lands, in equal measure. Terrifying, because he assessed everything he saw from the eyes of the potential conqueror. And beautiful, because he seemed so moved, unexpectedly, by what he encountered. He complained frequently about the villages and towns they passed, but he was also frequently and secretly delighted with small, soft things, little moments of beauty that he would not have been allowed back in his own, more brutal lands. Mae had seen him, more than once, delicately sniffing a flower as they passed, and she pretended not to notice that he often picked a bloom or two and carried it hidden in his hand. He was obsessed with paintings, and would often stand before them for several minutes without moving, considering every line and brushstroke.

The companions had also discovered that Sten was almost as fond of cookies as Alistair was of cheese. (Arguments over which of the two was most fanatical about his feelings were complex and often involved sizeable wagers.)

There was something about Sten that, to Mae, seemed almost starved for beauty, for tenderness. Leliana had tormented him for days, for instance, teasing him lovingly, because she had caught him playing with a kitten in a doorway in Denerim. The contrast between the big, dour warrior and the pretty, fluffy little creature was absurd yet somehow wonderful, and the best part of all had been when Sten had realized that both Mae and Leli were watching him, he had actually blushed.

“Sten, there’s a lot we don’t know about you,” said Mae, later on at camp, as they sat around the fire.

“Except that he’s a big softie,” said Leliana.

“This is true,” said Mae, considering. “You are undoubtedly a big softie.”

Sten gritted his teeth. “I am not!”

“You are. We saw you,” said Leliana, delightedly. “You playing with that kitten.”

“I was not playing,” said Sten. “I was helping it train.”

Alistair snorted, and Maerithel grinned. “Oh, yes, Sten, you’re absolutely right. I’m sure that even as we speak, the Qunari are readying their terrifying kitten battalions to be unleashed upon the world.”

The look of outrage on Sten’s face was so funny when she said this that Mae burst out laughing.

“Cutest. Blight. Ever,” said Alistair, and Leliana giggled.

Sten shook his head. “I am betrayed,” he said glumly. “And I had thought you a friend.”

“You are a friend,” said Mae, teasing him. “It’s just fun to be reminded that there’s a heart beating under all that armor.” He looked sharply at her, for a split second, then back to Leliana, who was teasing him again.

“Yes, Sten. You are a friend. And you are also a big softie,” Leliana sang. Sten glowered at her as even Alistair and Wynne chuckled.

“You know,” said Zevran thoughtfully, his accent as always, as musical as song. “It is worth pointing out that a kitten could be a formidable and genuinely unexpected weapon. Under the right circumstances.”

Alistair considered. “You know, you’re not half wrong. Just think of all those claws and all that fluffy adorableness, launched in your face when you least expect it. AGHGGH! Cuteness! Claws in the face! What to do?”

Sten looked at them disapprovingly. “There will be no launching of kittens,” he said. Mae fell over against Leliana, giggling.

“Ah. The tragedy of such a response. And now I am disappointed,” said Zevran, pensively. “The despair of discovering something I did not even know I wanted until this exact moment—to see Sten tossing kittens into the fray of battle! And now I know it shall never occur.”

“Wait,” said Mae. “I have to admit that I, like Sten, am pro-kitten. We will not be tossing kittens into the fray.”

Morrigan considered. “I do not know,” she said. “Yet I’m tempted to believe there is something here. A way to use people’s best instincts against them. I may work up a kind of glamour for this, mayhap an illusion of some kind. T’would be interesting.”

Sten responded to this by looking even more depressed for kitten-kind.

Meanwhile, Leliana was teasing again. “But Sten! You are so big and stoic! Who would have thought you'd be a big sooooftieeee?”

Sten attempted for one more flailing effort to regain his dignity. “Stop saying that! I am a soldier of the Beresaad. I am not… a softie!” Then he stopped, and Mae looked at him, wondering what strange thing was happening before she realized that Sten was… laughing. Yes, actually laughing. Softly. But it was happening.

He shrugged, wryly, and let them laugh in return.

“I didn't mean to make fun of you,” Leliana said, smiling. “There's nothing wrong with having a heart, Sten. It's just not what I expected.”

“Why?” he asked, smiling.

“You're so Qunari!” she cried. “All the stories speak as if you were a hurricane or an earthquake rather than people.”

Sten’s smile vanished. “Leliana, Qunari are most dangerous because we are thinking men and not an unthinking force.”

“I don't understand. What do you mean?”

He glanced to Mae, then back to the fire. “For your sake, I truly hope you never find out.”

“Kitten battalions,” said Wynne. “Now I have indeed heard everything.”

Sten glared at Mae, but she saw the humor still there, underneath, and grinned merrily at him.

“We will never speak of this again,” he said.

“On my honor,” she said. “Your secret is safe with us.”

“Vashedan!” he cried finally, giving up. Then he glowered for the rest of the evening, hunched over the campfire as if waiting for it to produce more kittens to protect.

Humorously or no, the fact was, Sten was a mystery to Mae. All of these little instances showed the hidden and sensitive man beneath the warrior surface, yet he could also be shockingly casual when it came to discussions about the Qunari and their goals. For Mae, one of the most striking examples of this almost brutal aspect to him had occurred when each of them had been discussing their many travels around the campfire, as well as the countries they had yet to see. When Leliana had noted that Tevinter, Rivain, Antiva, and the other northern kingdoms had all been conquered by the Qunari at one point or another, Alistair had thrown a stick into the fire, musing. “You almost did it,” he’d said to Sten. “You almost conquered the world.”

Sten had shrugged. “We’ll do better next time.” Absolute assurance, ice, and disinterest in his response. It was not even something he questioned. Mae, listening, realized that beneath everything else—everything—was this absolute belief in Sten that yes, in fact, they were all merely potential tools for use under the Qun.

The fucking Qun.

Mae had shivered, and there had been no more idle chat after that.

Meanwhile, Sten seemed to find her world just as unfathomable.

“Your people!” he had cried once to her in exasperation. “Everyone dreams of what they cannot have, of who they cannot be. Your farmers wish to be merchants; the merchants dream of being nobles, and the nobles dream of becoming warriors. No one is content to be who they are!” She had laughed at his incomprehension, and he had smiled back in that slight, careful way of his. There was a purity to his sight that she treasured, and that no one else that she knew would have captured in quite the same way.

And it was true. To be a citizen of Ferelden was to insist that the world conform to your own liking. Which was absurd. And yet… very human.

Chapter Text

Then came the day when Alistair was leading them along the road over a grassy hill, then he’d stopped, motionless as he looked toward the horizon, his blue eyes as round as those of a child’s.

“Maker’s breath!” he breathed.

“What is it?” Maerithel asked, then stopped as she saw what had moved him. She gripped her staff and stared, for once shocked enough to be glad of the staff simply as a means of support.

The Darkspawn had won again.

And it had been a massacre of unusual cruelty and scope.

Just below them, where the road sloped downward, lay a huge tumble of wagons, bodies, and scattered crates and refuse, many still smoldering. Even at this distance, large red patches of blood were visible everywhere. Among the broken things were the bodies of livestock and pack animals, crushed and cruelly cut, while near them, tiny and fragile, the human bodies became visible, most broken or twisted in unnatural ways. Burned. Crumpled like bits of refuse.

They lay as only the dead could lie, mute and waiting and accusing forever those who found them. It was as if a giant hand had carelessly fractured its dolls in a temper, then scattered a ruin of toys across a wrinkled green cloth.

But these were not toys, they were simply more of the dead, more of the thousands of dead across Thedas who would be forgotten tomorrow.

“Come on,” said Maerithel. “Maybe we’ll find a survivor.”

They hurried down the hill, but there were no survivors to be found, only more flames, more smoke, and a donkey that, terribly, brayed its last even as they approached—even before Leliana could get to it. The expression on the bard’s face was so broken that Maerithel hugged her. For a few seconds, she had seen what Leli would look like as an old woman. And it was an expression shared by each of them now. She hugged the girl, and cried, giving them both the release they needed. Then she pulled back.

“Come,” she said. “We can still do what we can.”

But they were all stunned, unsure. Alistair’s mouth was a thin, tight line. Leliana was still openly weeping. “Come, come,” said Morrigan, her eyes far darker than their usual gold. If she herself was near tears, however, she would not admit it. “’Tis a shame, but there is nothing more we can do for these people here.”

“We can bury them,” said Maerithel into the silence.

The others looked at her in surprise.

“Mae,” said Wynne, gently. Look at this. It would take us hours, perhaps days.”

“But look at them, look—” Maerithel’s breathing sounded harsh to her in the crisp, cold air. She knew the others were looking at her with surprise or even disapproval, but she could not seem to care.

“Warden,” said Sten, his voice as intimate and worried as if he had taken her in his arms. “We… We cannot help them.”

“We can. We can. I—we cannot leave them,” she said. “Not like this.” Her eye fell upon the body of a little girl nearby, not more than six or seven years old. “Not forgotten. Not as food for animals…” Her throat worked in a dry sob in spite of herself. “Look at her. That little girl… I…”

“It is the world,” said Sten, hesitantly, meeting her eyes.

“It shouldn’t be,” she said fiercely.

“No,” he said. “You misunderstand me. There is no dishonor in becoming food for animals. It is the fate we all share, at some point. That is what I mean when I say it is the world.”

She was silent. She could not stop looking at the little girl. “It’s too brutal. I see what you’re saying, and I wish I could find comfort in it,” she said. “But I can’t.”

“I do not think, in moments such as these, that comfort is a possibility,” said Sten.

Alistair looked around the scene, judging and thinking, surprising her with his level detachment. “I don’t think we can bury them, Mae. But we could… cover them, perhaps with a cairn,” he said, hesitantly.

“He’s right. Or we could burn them,” said Sten. “It might be cleaner, more honorable…”

Maerithel looked at them in relief. “Yes,” she said.

“I think I can repair one of these wagons well enough that we can use it to transport them,” said Sten.

“That’s perfect,” she said.

After four hours of dedicated work by the entire party (even Feldhar got in on the action, trotting to and fro with supplies or tools), the deed was done. The dead had been stacked in a pile surrounded by all of their makeshift weapons in a neat and respectful circle in the wet ground—most of them pitiable and tragic weapons, but all the more brave for that—shovels and sticks and axes and fragile bows—no actual swords or shields. But they had been honored. They would not lie here as food for animals.

Sten lit the pile of bodies with a torch.

“En’an’sal’in,” whispered Maerithel, in spite of herself. His flame-colored eyes leapt to hers, but she accepted that she had shown weakness. She’d had to.

And now she wished these poor twisted souls comfort, and hoped somewhere that they had found peace.

Sleep was long in coming that night, for all of them.

Chapter Text

They journeyed on. They had no choice. The world would not allow them any other alternative.

For herself, Maerithel was merciless about their travels because she could almost feel the advancement of the Blight under the surface of her world, and that knowledge terrified and pushed her constantly forward.

Meanwhile, Wynne continued to mother everyone and to act as if she were ninety years old and not, in fact, a pretty, slender and graceful woman barely past middle age. Although Maerithel was delighted to notice that, more than once, she had in fact caught Wynne glancing appreciatively at Zevran’s backside. It was good to know that even the primmest among them was, in fact, human.

Not long after, Maerithel was even more amused to find that, while Leliana and Zevran were paying a fair amount of predictable flirtatious attention to her—attention she dismissed affectionately—she was delighted to note that Zev was also paying an even greater amount of attention to a wholly nonplussed Wynne, as well.

“Wynne, oh, Wynne,” he would cry as they walked along the road. “What a pleasure it is for me, an appreciator of the fairer forms, to be able to walk behind you at such moments as these.”

“Zevran,” said Wynne wearily. “Must you? Day after day, week after week, and all I hear are these disrespectful and objectifying comments about my various parts.”

“I don’t know,” said Alistair grumpily. “Nobody ever talks about my various parts. Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about me?”

“You are a pretty boy,” said Leliana soothingly.

“I am not pretty!” cried Alistair. “I am manly! And none of you says a word about it. Not even Morrigan!” He looked at Mae appealingly but she shrugged and stayed silent. She was emphatically Not Going There.

Morrigan’s eye, meanwhile, glinted dangerously. “Are you suggesting, Warden, that I am somehow an easy mark when it comes to love?”

“Well yes,” said Alistair naively. “You threw yourself at Sten, for instance, for weeks. But look at me! I’m definitely handsomer. And I know we hate each other, but I still think—let’s face it—if you aren’t admiring my hindquarters, you’re missing out.”

“My dear Alistair,” said Morrigan. “I mean this with all sincerity: Your hindquarters are your best part. One could almost say that they define you. I promise you: I have not overlooked their appeal. In actuality, I prefer the view.”

“See?” asked Alistair. “That’s more like it.”

“Oh dear,” said Morrigan, who evidently did in fact have a conscience somewhere deep down there. Because you could tell she actually felt bad as she looked at Maerithel, with a smile both wicked and regretful. “The poor boy.”

“Hush,” hissed Maerithel, as Leliana giggled. Alistair smiled, then frowned, as he began to parse her so-called compliment. Meanwhile, Wynne was shaking her head.

“See?” she said to Zevran. “Compliment his various parts instead!”

“But your various parts are so lovely,” said Zev. “However, I mean no offense. I do not say that how you look is all that you are. But how you look is certainly pleasing, so why should I not take note of that fact and pay you the compliment?”

Wynne made a frustrated noise that sounded like “OOF.” (It was a new noise, and an interesting one, coming from, of all people, Wynne.)

Maerithel looked at her. “Do you want him to stop?” she asked. “I don’t want you feeling, um, uncomfortable.”

“I am not uncomfortable,” sighed Wynne theatrically. “I am old… and near death…”

Mae laughed in spite of herself. “You’re laying it on a bit thick, there, Wynne.”

“Methinks the lady may, in fact, protest a bit too much,” said Morrigan.

“I do not,” said Wynne. “I just find such discussions pointless.”

Zevran rolled his eyes. “You see? Perhaps, dear Warden, I am trying to teach her a larger lesson here. Here she walks, a beautiful and sensual creature, yet she would deny herself life’s pleasures even while still alive, while still a succulent flower ripe for the picking, whose nectar is surely as sweet on the tongue as—”

“Oh, dear MAKER,” cried Alistair. “Make it stop. Oh God of Cheeses, hear my cry. This is either the best or the worst conversation I have ever heard in my life. I can’t decide. I just know I do not want to witness any more of it.”

“For once, and ‘tis a rare occasion, we are in agreement, Alistair,” said Morrigan. “Please… make it stop.”

“I don’t know,” said Leliana mischievously. “I wouldn’t mind hearing a bit more. It reminds me of a song I learned back in Orlais… and surely the heroine was not as pretty as our Wynne.”

“Stop all this silliness!” cried Wynne in exasperation, flushing an even deeper red. “It is unseemly. And let us have no more talk about my… nectar.”

Leliana giggled again. “Nectar!” Alistair was grinning. Sten just looked faintly annoyed at the entire situation.

“Zev!” said Maerithel, warningly. “Come on. Give her a break. You’re done. And apologize. Because that nectar thing was just… not necessary.”

“Personally, I’m traumatized for life,” said Alistair. “Let’s face it, I will never get that one out of my head.”

Zevran grinned, and even managed a graceful bow to Wynne without breaking his stride. “Apologies, dear lady. I only wished to make my point.”

“Which was?” asked Wynne, a bit more sharply than usual.

“That a bosom like yours deserves to be admired,” said Zev. “That is all.”

“See? This is what I’m talking about,” Wynne chided. “Is that an appropriate tone to take with an old woman?”

“No,” said Zev grinning. “It is the appropriate tone to take with a beautiful and mature woman who has somehow and regrettably assumed that her life was prematurely over.”

“Zevran,” said Wynne sternly. “For all intents and purposes, my life is over.”

Leliana spoke, breaking the silence. “I am sorry, Warden, but… I like him. He is not wrong.”

“Thank you, Leli,” Mae said, and she smiled.

“I do not believe the Maker would wish us to abandon joy,” Leliana continued, and her face shone with faith and the purity of belief. “Even in the face of darkness or duty. I hope, for myself, that I do not lose my capacity for it. Our world is a marvelous place, a song sung into being by the Maker himself. How can we possibly deny ourselves His grace?” She made a lovely picture against the mountains before them—the pointed, pale face, with its beautiful swing of red hair against the whiteness of the snow. Mae smiled in spite of herself, treasuring the image, and moment, for memory.

“All I am saying,” said Leli, “is that there is more to life than service. And I believe the Maker wishes this to be so.”

“Well, I am here now only to serve,” said Wynne dourly. “To do my part in our quest. I do not need the casual flirtations of handsome rogues to distract me from my duties.”

“Ah,” said Zevran, his eyes sparkling against his tanned skin. “So you think me handsome, do you?”

Wynne shrugged primly. “I may be old, but I am not blind.”

“Neither am I,” smirked Zevran.

The discussion was over, and many of the companions blushed as they walked along, and even continued to do so, in a few instances, once camp had been made. The only one who did not do so was Feldhar, who found an excitingly rotted boot on his nightly travails, and did his best to make sure all of the companions admired it.

“You are a brave and noble creature,” said Sten to the dog, who adored him. “And your curiosity does you credit. Now take it away from me or I shall smite you.”

Feldhar complied.

Chapter Text

Later, at camp, Maerithel spoke to Wynne about the incident with Zevran, mostly to make sure that she hadn’t missed the tone of the exchange. She would not have wanted Wynne to be truly upset.

“Thank you for asking about it, my dear,” Wynne said. She had been sitting before her tent, deep in thought and looking into the fire. Maerithel, watching her, suspected those thoughts were not entirely about such constant outward topics as the propriety, duty, the Maker, yarn, or the self-denial so long advised by the Circles. Maybe Wynne was human, after all.

“It’s just so silly,” Wynne admitted.

“How so?” asked Maerithel.

“It’s, well, a bit embarrassing,” said Wynne with an effort. “What is he thinking? Why is he not directing such attentions at you, for instance?”

“He has, but only as far as he thinks such flirtations are expected and appropriate.” Maerithel laughed. “He doesn’t really want me.” Impulsively, she touched the other woman’s hand with her own. Wynne’s hand was so much softer and paler. Her own was tanned by the wind and sun, rougher. She found herself touched by the disparity, somehow. “Wynne, fine, let’s talk facts. Yes, you are older than I am, or than Zev, certainly, but you are still so beautiful. It’s obvious you were far prettier than I am when you were younger… as you still are.”

“Now, Maerithel,” chided Wynne. “You are perfectly beautiful as you are.”

Maerithel shrugged. “Not really. I’m scarred, I’m strange, I’m what I am. I had no voice in the creation of my face or form.”

Wynne patted her hand. “Then listen to me. Cherish that face and form, dear. They are perfectly lovely.”

“As you do your own?” asked Maerithel.

Wynne flushed again and did not speak.

“The thing is,” said Maerithel, “I don’t really care all that much. My face is my face. I have an archdemon to fight.”

Wynne looked at her sharply. “Such factors do not necessitate your turning down all attempts at happiness,” she said.

“They don’t,” smiled Maerithel. “And I would not turn down any invitation to happiness that truly appealed to me.” Her eye met Wynne’s, direct as an arrow of fire. “And neither should you.”

Wynne colored, even in the firelight. “I…”

“Be brave,” said Maerithel softly. “Be. Brave.”

“Warden… I am old enough to be his mother, or nearly so. I am not some fresh and beautiful flower for the picking.”

Maerithel looked at Wynne, so fragile and lovely and alive, with her pale skin and silver hair, the small folded rosebud mouth, the piercing blue eyes and slender form, and she chose her words slowly and carefully. “Wynne,” she said. “I’ve been given a kind of vision, with the Joining. I get to see, sometimes, a little more clearly. Most of what I see is bad, or corrupt or horrible…”

“I’m sorry,” said Wynne, hesitantly.

“No, no… It’s all right,” said Maerithel. “But sometimes, I get to see into people as well. For instance, into Sten, at the cage. Into Zev, when we let him live. And into you. I can see you. And you are exquisite—courageous, adept and unique. If occasionally too free with your advice.”

“Thank you,” said Wynne. “And apologies—” (a slight grin). “But…”

“No. Let me finish,” said Maerithel, “Then you can judge me. But I wanted to say… you speak too easily as if your life is over, as if your own body or purpose have no meaning. I can see you more clearly. And I can see that you lie to yourself.”

Wynne looked sharply at her, then was silent.

“The world itself may be ending,” said Maerithel. “The skies are dark. If a handsome man who knows and cares for you offers you forgetfulness, adoration, and admiration… surely there are worse things than to take him up on it? Even for a night.”

“Hmm,” said Wynne. “I suppose I may emphasize my dotage a bit much, on occasion.”

Maerithel smiled. “Your life, and your body, are blessings. Treat them as such. And when it comes to Zevran and his comments, outrageous as they are, treat them like the gift that I truly think they are intended to be.”

Wynne finally smiled at that.

“Well,” she said. “We’ll see.”

Maerithel smiled, feeling that her message had been received. “But let me know if his attentions are in fact inappropriate or unwarranted,” she said, “and I shall shut them down.”

“All right,” said Wynne.

She stood to leave, and was surprised when Wynne’s voice broke the silent darkness. “Maerithel… is there someone—for you—who has yet to speak? An invitation to happiness or forgetfulness that you are still awaiting?”

Maerithel looked at her, and somehow the moment demanded an honesty she would not quite have admitted to, otherwise.

“Yes,” she said.

“Then I hope he speaks,” said Wynne quietly. “Or you do. And soon.”

Chapter Text

Several weeks passed, as they crossed Ferelden and did what they could.

Each of them, battling a private or not so private passion, fear, or drive for redemption.

They talked. They fought. They laughed and cried. They defended and accused. They occasionally even forgave.

But her little band continued to make strides as they worked to assemble the chess pieces they needed against Loghain and to tempt the Archdemon to final action.

How funny it was for Maerithel to realize that the Archdemon was far easier—or at least less complicated—than the constant cycle of nobles and errands and treaties and agreements required to assemble the kind of army a resistance required?

It was almost comical.

And then came a night of nightmares and frustrated realizations.

They were at camp, not far from Orzammar. It was far into the night and the stars were old. There was nothing but silence, chill breezes, and starlight (all of Maerithel’s favorite elements).

She had fought herself for several minutes, then had finally gone to seek out Sten. He was still up, unmoving and focused on the magnificent sky, seated silently outside of his tent as he quietly tested the blade she had recovered for him not long ago, in Redcliffe.

Sten had continued to be a source of frustration and comfort. A paradox. As always, he always camped apart from the others (although not as far away as Morrigan; she suspected he wanted to be close enough to hear Leliana’s songs, although he would never admit to it), so there was more shadow and privacy there than among the others. He often built a small fire of his own, late into the night, and it was this fire that had drawn her now.

“Sten,” she said.

He looked up and smiled slightly. “Yes,” he said.

“Can I sit here for a moment?”

“As you wish,” he said.

She entered the small circle of his firelight, stumbling slightly as if preoccupied or weary. He made a movement to help her, or catch her, but she steadied herself, then sat down on a tree stump next to him before the fire. She saw him watching her closely, and hugged herself. “Sorry,” she said, but she could not quite smile. “I’m… I’m not quite myself.”

“Maerithel,” he asked. He so rarely used her name, and her eyes met his. “What is troubling you?”

She was silent, breathing slightly heavily, as if coming to him had been an effort.

His voice softened. “You are in distress. Tell me how I can aid you.”

“I—” she drew breath, then stumbled. “I… I’m just now realizing many things,” she said. “It’s like I’m waking up.”

“What kinds of things?” he asked.

“Remember when we met?” she asked. “You were under a sentence of death.”

“Yes,” he said. “Of course.”

“I’m just now realizing that I am under a sentence of death too,” she said quietly. “And it’s going to be ugly and brutal and if I’m very very lucky it will take a good twenty years or so.”

“It is a brutal assignation, kadan,” he said heavily, “although there is great honor in it.”

She caught the new word, then barreled past it, for now: “I’m tired of honor,” she said. She saw his frown, and made a quieting motion with her hand. “No, no, I don’t mean it that way. You know me well enough to know that I care about honor. But I don’t care for it simply as a shiny word to cover a multitude of ills. I had no choice in becoming this.” Her voice trembled slightly, and she clenched a fist in spite of herself. She unclenched it when she saw him noticing.

“Sorry,” she said, and he was startled to see a tear drop down her cheek in the dim starlight.

He made a slight movement as if to reach out to her, then pulled back. “The world… is not kind,” he said haltingly.

“Kind?” she laughed without humor. “Oh no, it is not kind. But I’m all right with that. I’m an elf. A mage. A woman. I’m used to it. I can get past it and move forward. I can fight hard enough to distract me, anyway, at least.”

“I am familiar with this as well,” he said.

“But you see, what makes it worse,” she said, frustrated. “Is that that perfectly nice heroic idiot over there, Alistair, he loves being a Grey Warden. He never stops talking about what an honor it is. And maybe it was an honor for him because he was actively recruited; he got to choose it. But I didn’t. For me, the whole idea is obscene.”

He leaned closer. “What has upset you?” asked Sten. “Is it—do you love the boy?”

She looked up, startled, then surprised him by laughing, openly and softly, her face vivid and amused. “Love—Alistair? Oh, gods, Sten. No.” She stopped laughing, then looked at Sten. “Although I do him a disservice. Alistair is my friend. I don’t mean to insult him. He is honest, kind, and brave, and he’ll make a good man someday. But he’s… I just cannot see things as he does. I cannot turn the Joining into something bright or beautiful.”

He nodded.

She twisted her fingers together in her lap, then took a deep breath. “I had my first dream about the Archdemon tonight,” she explained. “Or, rather, my first absolute understanding that that was what I had been dreaming about.”

She looked into the fire. “You’d think it would be like just dreaming about a dragon, although that’s terrifying enough… but when you’re a Warden, you can feel this… poison coming off it in waves, a wrongness. You feel sick, even in the dream. And you know, even in the dream, that it’s aware of you. It sees you. It’s going to hunt you now… and then you wake up. And you can’t imagine ever feeling safe again.”

“I see,” said Sten heavily.

“Not yet, you don’t,” she said, with a wan smile. “Bear with me, Sten of the Beresaad. The plot thickens.”

He smiled in spite of himself.

“So I woke up from this nightmare, retreating from the shadow I now know is aware of me and which will be hunting me soon. And I was almost retching because it was… for that few seconds, it was worse than even the worst things that have ever happened to me.”

She paused, hesitating, and he nodded. “And I have a list,” she said somewhat shakily.

He reached out a hand and covered her own with his larger, darker one. Her eyes met his for a moment, surprised, then held the glance steadily. Neither of them looked away.

“Many do,” he said at last. “It is the world.”

“Yes,” she said, and she wrapped her fingers around his as if she could not help herself. “And you’re right. That’s the world.” She paused. “But then—to dream this—see, I awakened, and there was Alistair, watching me. Like I’m the most wonderful thing he’s ever seen. While I’m hazy and exhausted and sick and trying desperately not to throw up. I’m battling the poison and darkness.

“And then he gives me a big speech about the nightmares and how they’re a regular part of Grey Warden life. But just a part of the ‘honor.’” She chuckled without mirth. “Mind you, Sten, nobody had bothered to tell me any of this before or after the Joining. Nobody. They just sent me off to Duncan. Then poof. And here I am, and then this. And then Alistair tells me that the nightmare, in this bright, shining way, is simply one of the honors of my station.”

“Not all honors burn brightly,” said Sten. “Is it possible he was trying to console you with that?”

“No,” she said. “He truly believes it. But I do not.” Her voice was low and savage. “It is not an honor. I was not given a choice.”

Sten sighed. “Were you not?” he asked.

She look at him, startled. “What?”

“Were you not, in your own way, given a choice?” he asked. “You have told me that you accepted the Joining as punishment for your attempt to save a fellow mage. Was that not choice enough?”

She bit her lip, thinking. “I hadn’t looked at it that way.”

“I know it is a curious form of comfort,” said Sten. “But the fact remains that you put yourself into a cage as surely as I did after my crimes against an innocent farmer and his family.”

“I… I didn’t deserve a cage,” she said slowly.

“I did,” he said levelly. “I still do.”

She glared at him. “No. You do not. You didn’t act out of malice.”

“Does that matter?” he asked, heavily. “I let my rage take me. I acted. People died.”

“I’m sorry, Sten,” she said. “For them and for you.”

“So am I,” he said. “For them. I have spent my life dedicated to the idea of protecting the weak. What I did… it offends me more deeply than I can say. I will never be rid of it.”

She thought, remembering back to that fierce initial glance before the cage. “You have done what you could.”

“The tragedy of the world,” he said quietly, “is that nothing we do, however valid, can truly negate a death. I do not deserve any happiness that remains in this world. I am simply glad to do what I can against the evil that remains.”

He did an unusual thing, then. He moved closer to her, and looked into her eyes. A potential declaration, a sharing. She met his eyes with a hope she could not bring herself to put into words. Yet she kept her eyes on his and did not waver.

“In other words, you made a choice,” he said. “As I who follow you also made a choice.”

She caught her breath, her eyes glancing back to the fire and away from his. “Yes. You’re right. I did.”

“You are not powerless,” he said. “You are suffering a cruel fate. But it is a fate you chose.”

“Just as you did,” she said, low. “But nobody’s going to let me out of my cage.”

“I would do so if I could,” he replied, slowly, almost unwillingly.

“I know,” she said. She forced a shrug, then shook her head, attempting to lighten the moment.

“Don’t misunderstand me,” she said. “I will take down the Archdemon… or rather, we will. I truly believe that. I know it. And I am proud that it will be us that does so. But that’s a mission. It’s something I understand. We’ll do it and go home. But the Grey Warden aspect… I just cannot see it as Alistair does.”

“I do not wonder at that,” said Sten quietly. “Was that the end of the discussion?”

She gave another mirthless chuckle. “No,” she said, slightly embarrassed. “He—tried to give me a gift—a rose. He thinks he loves me.”

“He may actually do so,” said Sten, “to be fair to the boy.”

“No,” she said. “Beyond the campfire, or our travels, he’s talked to me maybe three or four times on a personal level. He doesn’t know me at all. And when I do talk, half the time his eyes glaze over, because he already thinks he knows who I am. He’s a dreamer, not a realist. And he doesn’t listen. His love for me is no more clear-eyed than his hazy belief that becoming a Warden is life’s greatest honor for each and every recipient.”

“I see,” he said. But she caught the slight and unexpected cheerful glint in his eye and grinned at him.

“Well,” he said. “It is well that you know this about yourself. And I do not doubt that you will acquit yourself on our mission, kadan.”

She looked sharply at him. “What does that mean? That word, again. You’ve never called me that before tonight.”

He shrugged as if it were of little consequence. “It is a word we use under the Qun. A gesture of respect.”

“Is it a sign of rank?” she asked.

He smiled. “Not really.”

They were silent together, listening to one another breathe. The silence waited. The fire waited. The very night around them seemed to wait. For all she knew, even the sky waited.

At last, she made herself speak.

“Sten,” she said, strangely hesitant.

“Yes?”

“May I ask you a personal question?”

He shrugged genially. “If you feel you must.” The dry, bare ghost of humor in his voice, as always—the closest he could come to teasing.

“Do you… do you have someone, back home in Seheron?”

He looked at her, puzzled. “I have many people.”

“No,” she said. “I mean… do you have a—a wife, or anything like that?” Even in the starlight, he could see that her cheeks were crimson.

He withdrew his hand from hers. “We do not have—wives—mates, under the Qun.”

She sat up very straight, embarrassed and rebuffed and dying inside. “I’m sorry to have asked,” she said. “Please forgive the question.”

His voice, equally cool in dignified answer. “It was an understandable mistake.”

She stood, then bowed slightly to him. “I’ll leave you to your rest, Sten.”

“Rest well,” he said. “Kadan.”

“And you also,” she said, and left.

When she left, he looked at the place where she had sat beside him, now an empty place of shadows and darkness, then he brought his hand to his lips and pressed his mouth to the place where the palm of his hand had touched hers.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t just Mae, however. Tensions were high in general as the journeys and stakes increased.

The flirtations throughout the camp, the glances and subtleties, continued. Mae disregarded them, for the most part. And every once in awhile, Zevran or Leliana might make her a teasing offer, but she could tell their hearts weren’t truly in it, even if her own had been. Which it wasn’t.

None of the flirting by or between companions worried Maerithel, however—she understood that it was as much a gesture of respect, love and humor as it was of actual invitation. She simply continued to smile back, to parry compliments, and to keep her tent scrupulously empty in the evenings, unless she relented and allowed Feldhar to sleep at the foot of her bedroll. She did not talk about why she would not accept even casual comfort, or admit that her eye was elsewhere.

On Sten. The only one who did not flirt, who did not find excuse to smile or to touch. Who (worse) actually seemed to go out of his way to avoid touching her at all.

But she’d caught his eyes, and he’d caught hers, and both of them knew it. There were a multitude of tiny signs, if one were watching closely. The way he would stay beside her in skirmishes, unwaveringly putting himself in harm’s way so that she went without injury while the swords and knives cut him down, the way he wordlessly guarded her from harm. The glances across the campfire. The poetry and music of his voice when he told her of his story and people in their talks before his tent.

It became a kind of absurd dance. A strange one in which neither of the participants ever admitted they were dancing at all. Sten, nightly, looking to her when she visited. Maerithel, courteous and formal, bidding him goodnight. The occasional glances on the road, the shared, cutting humor or weariness when, in the flash of a glance, they knew their thoughts or reactions were both one and the same.

But neither spoke.

Meanwhile, friendships among the companions formed and broke and reformed constantly as the months passed and their quest neared its end, and Maerithel could not blame them. Leliana and Alistair had become involved for awhile, after Mae had refused him, although Leliana had eventually broken it off.

A sadness and withdrawal from Leliana had been noticeable afterward, not so much connected to Alistair, Maerithel thought, but to something outside her, to a realization that the world would find her. The sweet soft girl from the Chantry was fading from them, day by day, and the realization hurt Maerithel more than she had ever expected it to. She understood people well enough to know that Alistair would always find someone he needed. Mae was not so sure about Leliana, who had continued to confound her initial impressions. The sweet daffy girl with the bard songs had a core of steel after all. Maerithel began to think she had never understood her at all… a realization that only increased her respect for the beautiful redhead whose arrows flew as truly as her voice.

But there were lovely realizations, even so, to be found within all the drama between the companions and their own fears and yearnings. The realization that they were making a difference. The realization that she, herself, was mastering her nightmares against the Archdemon. “Fenedhis,” she’d murmur as she slept, and the visions had even begun to fade and sleep had begun to occur… as if she were a normal person. And not one cursed with a corruption and Blight of the blood.

Best of all for Maerithel had been the realization that her words had evidently had some kind of effect on Wynne, as well, because somewhere in the past few weeks, Mae had realized that Zev was, in fact, sneaking back each morning from Wynne’s tent. Maerithel had discovered the change in status on an especially early morning after a night of sleeplessness, and her joy at the discovery had caused her to go dance an impromptu jig with Feldhar, who had greatly approved. On another morning, she’d met Wynne’s slightly abashed eyes before dawn was a purple promise in the East, and in the face of Wynne’s blush, Maerithel had only nodded slightly.

Live. She’d thought. Live while you fucking can.

Then she had smiled with all the delight and love of which she was capable, and Wynne had smiled back. And Mae had kept the secret. She had, in fact, never even mentioned it even to Wynne, herself, out loud. Not even once. It was the least she could do.

Even so, each morning she looked with dread to see who would emerge from Sten’s tent. Perhaps Morrigan, after all, for instance, after so many invitations. She would not have blamed him. But he emerged alone, always, never looking at her, never saying a word. But her heart leaped, because he was alone. And then she cursed her own happiness as the selfishness it was, for surely he deserved the break any among them deserved. Hells, even Feldhar had met an attractive female hound on their travels through Denerim’s streets. And Morrigan herself had had a discreet if passionate fling with a Captain at Redcliffe Castle, although she’d broken it off, somewhat cruelly, when the man had shown signs of actual affection.

By all accounts, however, the only ones of their party to not actually find release had been Sten, and, privately and somewhat embarrassedly, Maerithel herself.

She shrugged it off. Leadership meant not corrupting their situation with needless or casual unexpected power shifts. Besides, since her awkward conversation with Sten, she had discovered a fondness within herself for solitude. She was facing corruption and death. A meaningless release in sex with someone unloved was just not something she could allow herself to make time for.

She simply kept on doing what was necessary, checking off each item from the list that would lead them to the Archdemon.

The treaties, and procuring the help from the mages. From the Dalish. From the dwarves of Orzammar. Check, check, check. The exposure and removal of the evil Arl Howe. The support of the nobles at the Landsmeet, and the removal of poor, maddened Loghain from his seat of power in favor of his sane and surprisingly strong daughter Anora. Check, check, check.

Mae and her companions were exhausted. But, finally, all of the pieces were in place. She just wished she could have brought herself to care.

Chapter Text

The truth was, they were, all of them, simply ready for it to be over.

By that last night before the final battle, they had all become so tired, loving, bitter, embattled and scarred, that most of them couldn’t stand to be around each other for extended periods… or parted from one another, either, if truth be told.

They were, after all, a family now.

So much effort. So many miles. So much blood. So much dust.

And now, at last, the end was in sight.

The pieces were in place. The Archdemon waited. They had done what they could before the final, fatal push.

This last night, they were housed in Redcliffe Castle, and the Arl had been (deservedly) more than kind and accommodating. Feldhar was, even now, reclining on a nest of luxurious druffalo skins.

They met in an open space on the second floor, not far from the Arl’s library. Mae had wanted to speak to them but had despaired of eloquence proper to the moment.

Finally, she had just decided to speak her heart.

“I want to thank you,” said Maerithel. “Each and every one of you. For what you have accomplished, for your courage and belief, and for your support of me in this journey at every step, especially in those moments when I was weak or wanting, when I was unsure of what was best. I hope I will not let you down tomorrow. You have never, ever let me down.”

“For now, I wish each of you nothing but love,” she said. “And to express my eternal gratitude. I believe we will survive tomorrow… or that most of us will do so. I believe we will beat this evil. And afterward, wherever you go, just know that my heart goes with you.”

She did not look at Sten.

“We will win tomorrow,” she said. “Because together we are more. We are magic. And we have the weight of the fair and thinking world behind us.”

Feldhar barked, and they all laughed, breaking the tension of the moment. It was funnier than usual because each of them would not admit to feeling awkward and strange within the walls of the castle, so far from their usual cozy encampments.

Then they bade each other good night—Leliana, affectionate to all, Wynne, worried and caring, Alistair bantering yet kind. Morrigan warm and searching, even giving Mae a quick embrace of sisterhood. Sten almost brusque, as if preoccupied.

As Mae said her goodnights, she was surprised to see Alistair follow Morrigan down the hall to her quarters—Alistair’s color high, even as his face was sober, expressionless, yet somehow set. Wynne, meanwhile, had delighted Mae and Leliana by turning to Zev, openly taking his hand, and leading him off to her room, a sparkle in her eye as she bade them goodnight. Zevran blew them a kiss as he followed.

“Farewell, my lovelies!” cried Zevran. “As you can see, I am no longer my own man.”

Leliana laughed, but sobered when she turned back to Mae, who had looked around to realize that Sten had somehow slipped away without a word. She looked back to see Leli’s very knowing and keen eyes upon her, in nothing but quiet sympathy.

“Maerithel,” she said. “Talk to him.”

Mae turned to her in surprise. “Talk to whom?”

“Talk to Sten,” she said softly.

Mae stared at her in astonishment, but Leliana only smiled at her expression. “I would be a poor bard indeed," she said. "Not to have seen the way you two look at each other.”

“But…” said Mae.

“You love him,” said Leli. “And I think he loves you, although he may be unwilling to admit it. But all of us know it. Speaking for myself, I think you have known it since the moment you found him at the cage all those many months ago. Talk to him.”

Mae swallowed, then looked away. “I’ve tried,” she said. “He—he will not acknowledge it.”

“Ah,” said Leliana. “I am sorry. I didn’t know.”

Mae struggled to find the words she wanted. “I do think he feels something. But perhaps our worlds are simply too far apart.” Her voice trembled in spite of herself, and she shook her head.

Leliana nodded sympathetically. “Then the least I can wish for you is that you go and get some rest.” She then leaned forward, and, utterly surprising Maerithel, kissed her fully and softly upon the lips. Then she drew back, grinning mischievously at Mae’s blush of surprise.

“Leliana,” she said haltingly.

“Don’t worry,” said Leliana. “I simply wanted to thank you for this journey. No matter what happens tomorrow, I am glad to have been a part of it.”

Maerithel suddenly found it difficult to speak. ‘Thank you,” she said. “I would not have wanted to do this without you present.”

“Sweet dreams, Warden,” said Leliana. “And know that you are loved.”

She turned, and walked gracefully off down the shadowed corridor. Mae stood still for a moment, too moved and full of feeling to be able to identify her own emotions, then called Feldhar to her and went to find her own attempt at fractured rest.

Chapter Text

As for Mae, she was even able to sleep, for a little while.

Even knowing it was the last night. The very last.

The last night before everything. Before loss, and probable darkness.

So perhaps it should not have surprised Maerithel that she did not sleep long before the darkness brought her awake, terrified and staring, the scream locked painfully in her throat. The archdemon, rampant. Flame, hell, death, loss.

Past or future, what did it matter? She’d awoken sobbing, either way.

She dismissed it forcibly.

But she could not sleep, so she dressed quickly and plainly in the travel-worn clothing the Arl’s servants had washed and pressed so neatly, and wandered the castle, restless into the early hours. She found the very idea of sleep impossible and ludicrous, yet all the world was quiet now.

So she walked.

Then she saw him at the end of the darkened corridor.

Sten. Her heart beat faster in spite of herself. Of course he would be as restless as she, pacing even as she was pacing these empty cold halls. Looking at paintings the Arl had probably never even noticed. Of course he was. Sten, who was as always, secretly starved for beauty.

He looked up, and saw her, then went still. She went up to him, then stopped at the sight of his face. Even in the shadows, the pain there reminded her of the first time she had seen him, that same ferocity and despair.

“Sten?”

“Good evening, kadan,” he said, but his voice was not welcoming, not beautiful and fluid as it normally was, but harsh and unlike itself.

She spoke hesitantly. “Are you all right?”

He paused. “I—I cannot answer that.”

She laughed without humor. “Neither can I.”

The slightest glimmer of humor in the shadowed face. A humor that was not humor but an acknowledgement that death was imminent. “Is it the battle you fear?”

She turned to the painting before him. “Look at him,” she said. “So fragile, so old. And yet he commanded his troops and died before the gates.”

“You did not answer me,” he said, soft.

She turned to him as directly as she always had, thinking about it fully and with care, as she always tried to do when they spoke. “All right. Fear? For me… not exactly. I know that tomorrow is when everything changes. I do. And that’s acceptable. I don’t fear pain or death. I don’t fear battle.”

“Then what do you fear, kadan?”

“The same things you do, I suspect,” she said dryly. “I fear letting our people down. I fear not coming through when the people of this world need us to do so. I fear failing because I lacked what was required.”

“Yes,” he said simply. Yet there was still something strange about him, something strangled, an almost incipient violence. She reached for him, afraid at the change, the sudden hesitance she saw.

“Sten? What is it?”

“I think, kadan, that I shall have to fight elsewhere tomorrow.” His voice was rough, but still calm, still with that somewhat blank, impersonal professionalism. “I have inquired, and it is possible I can stand with Teagan’s men.”

She drew a small, painful breath—not quite a gasp. “Why? Why… would you do that? Choose that? We need you with us. We have fought together for so long, after all.”

“It is not a matter I can discuss,” he said coldly. “With one of the bas.”

She flinched and stepped backwards, as if reacting to an actual, physical blow. “Bas,” she said. “Truly? After so many fights, so many months together?”

He did not answer. She waited him out for a few seconds. “Well,” she said, and her voice only contained the barest trace of bitterness. “I would have thought, after all we have shared, that I was at least worthy of being called a Basalit-an.” But her face managed to convey devastation without a single change in expression. She had, for the briefest of instances, somehow aged ten years, and the quiet determination he saw in her resolve not to give away that agony moved him again.

“I…” he said. His voice failed.

The moment ended. She watched him for another few seconds, then nodded slightly. “All right,” she said quietly, visibly mastering her own emotion. “We will miss you—I will miss you—in the fight.”

She turned away from him, wanting nothing more than to go back to the nightmare of the Archdemon, which would actually be less painful at this point, but he reached out and—in spite of himself—grabbed her arm. She stopped, frozen at the touch, as he pulled her gently back around to face him. She acceded, and stood waiting.

“Kadan.”

She waited him out, and he saw new tears still visible on her cheek.

“I—I must speak.”

“You spoke plenty already,” she said bluntly.

“I am sorry,” he said quietly. “I was not myself. I was, in fact, denying myself…” he paused in confusion. “I do not quite know what I am trying to say here, in fact.”

“You can tell me anything,” she said quietly. “Surely you know this by now.”

“All right. The fact remains that I am—I am tormented,” he said. “Although I do not know why that should be.”

“Tell me.” She leaned toward him, close enough to touch, but hesitantly, as if he were gatlok, something flammable and explosive, not flesh, able to incinerate her with a thought. Her tentative hand on his shoulder, that was all, as if a touch would fracture them both. And even so, he flinched.

His eyes met hers, even more vividly flame-colored than usual. “I do not understand it,” he said. “I cannot seem to stop it. It infects both my days and nightly dreamings. I cannot escape it.”

She looked puzzled. “You cannot escape what?”

“You,” he said. “You.”

She gasped at the realization of what he was saying, as if the words had both hurt or freed her. “Me?”

“Yes, you,” he said savagely. “How can you not know this?”

She let out a sigh that was very near a sob. “Me.”

“You,” he said again. “Always, always. You. You. I am confronted with your face. Your voice. Your laugh. Your scent. Your touch. Your form. Your words in my mind. Your very magic and movement…”

A breath of silence. She almost stumbled back from him in revelation, even as he caught her easily. “Finally,” she said, shaking her head and marveling. “I… I had come to think I was alone in it.”

“Alone? No,” he said almost as if in anger. “And it is not simply one thing that torments me about you,” he said harshly. Still with that same quiet emotion. “Do you not understand?”

She met his gaze unblinkingly.

“Say it, then.”

“Maerithel. Everything you are—everything—seems to call to me. And I am helpless to do anything but listen.”

Then she lost control, and all pretense was gone. She covered her face with her hands as her shoulders shook. She wept in silence, no sobs or theatrics. He reached down and gently pulled her hands away from her face, then nodded as if both had reached an unspoken understanding.

She resisted only for a moment, embarrassed at her show of emotion, then faced him.

“You see… I thought you would never speak,” she said simply. “That we would simply look at one another… and look and look and look, as we have always done. Then tomorrow would come and the tragedy of it would have been that one simple thing, that you never told me what we already knew.”

“I have never sought to cause you pain,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “And yet we have both been in pain.” She shrugged, slightly, and he was the one now to recoil.

“Which is why I must go,” he said roughly.

“Why?” she asked. “Pain is a part of life. It is not possible to truly avoid it.”

“Pain is a distraction,” he said bluntly.

Knowing his heart, she was braver now. “And what about love?”

“If I believed in it,” he said heavily, “I would say it is an even worse distraction.”

“The world may be ending,” she said. “Our time upon its surface may be ending. What does it matter if we seize a little happiness?”

He was silent.

“Sten,” she said, and her voice broke a little. “Please don’t go.”

He sighed again. “It would be best if I left.”

“Tell me how you think this will help,” she said. “Since all I can see is the harm that will arise without having you and your strength beside us.”

“I seek to leave because I am distracted in battle,” he said. “And I fear that my… my emotion would impair my abilities. I would not be at my best… because I am constantly in fear that a stray blow will find you.” He paused, searching for words.

“Sten, my love, you beautiful idiot. If a stray blow finds me,” she said, “I would want you beside me.”

Vashedan!” he swore, and then there were no more words, and he pulled her to him as his mouth found hers. She made a soft sound of surprise, then gave herself over to it, the kiss hungry, both sweet and savage, his hands on her face, her hands on his shoulders, as if she had become his instrument. For several seconds the world fell away, not into the evil darkness she had feared and battled, but into a complex and intimate awareness that was nothing but the touch and softness of this moment. The world faded to a distant roar as she gave herself over to it completely.

A few brief seconds of release, of utter abandonment. Then he pulled himself away, confused and raw, wanting. “I—I should not. We should not.” He dropped his hands, as if surprised at himself, but she only looked at him steadily.

“We should,” she said. Somehow, she was strong again. Perhaps even stronger than before.

“You do not understand,” he said.

“Then make me understand.”

“This—this. Whatever this is between us,” he said. “It is not the way of my people. It is—it is forbidden.”

“You are not in Seheron,” she said.

“No,” he said, and he turned away from her. “I am in a cage all over again.”

Her voice was strong and sure. There was no more doubt. “I will set you free,” she said. “Just as I did before.”

“You cannot.”

“I can. I will.

He whirled back around to her. “Do not mock me, kadan. I cannot seem to sleep. I find myself wishing for softnesses. Wishing for intimacies that are not associated with feeling under the Qun.”

“Then take them,” she said quietly. “They are yours.”

He did not kiss her again, as she had perhaps expected. Instead, in answer, he brought his hand to her face again. “I…” His face changed, softened, with the touch, and he moved his hand softly across her cheek to her jaw to the hollow of her throat, as if he could not quite let go.

“You are… softer than I had imagined,” he said.

“Forget that,” she said angrily. “Tell me.”

“For whatever reason, you… you move me,” he said. His hand was as gentle as his voice. “I do not understand it, and yet there it is.”

She dropped her eyes, and the tears fell. The torchlight wavered on her face and hands, on the pulse at her neck. He leaned in close, and realized that the torchlight had been a lie. “You’re trembling,” he said. “Are you cold?”

She looked at him, fully. “No.”

“I have wanted to touch you like this,” he said. “For… a long time now.”

“I know,” she said, shakily. “So do something about it.”

She looked up to see the glimmer of a smile. “Is that a yes?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

He breathed softly, as if in a quiet release, and then, and with infinite delicacy, he leaned down and kissed her face, softly and with deliberate and delicate gentleness that was strange in such a big man. Her eyelids. The hollow of her temple. Her cheek. The lovely line of her jaw. The base of her throat. And each kiss wiped away a line of her tears, and she shivered in spite of herself.

Then he bent his head, and even as she reached for him, he kissed her again, on her smiling mouth; this one as gentle as the first had been fierce. Then her lips opened under his, and she lost all sense of time or place. Both of them froze for a split second, as if registering that this moment was real, was actually happening, his arms encircling her as if they had done so a thousand times, and maybe they had, in his own imaginings. And hers. His lips were warm, firm and slow, hesitant at first, then hungrier, yet still with that sense of exquisite control, as if he were holding himself back in some way; as if he were afraid of his own hunger.

And yet she met him as if on a battlefield, kiss for kiss, moment for moment. She allowed herself to become lost in it, to give herself these few decadent seconds, her arms around his neck. The kiss deepened, became more urgent, and now it was an exploration, a thing of taste and touch. Still so delicate and controlled, still so quiet.

She bit his lip gently, teasing him, and this time it was he who shivered.

When he broke the kiss to look at her again, they were both breathing heavily in the silence of the darkened hall. then, somewhere, in a distant hall of the castle, a clock chimed two. Mae could almost taste the falling dust, the passing seconds.

His deep voice cut the silence, beautiful as always. “Will you come with me now?” he asked, low.

“Yes,” she said.

He turned suddenly and walked, almost coldly, resolutely, through the shadowed hallways and turnings, and she followed quietly. When he reached his quarters, he opened the door, then stepped back for her with a courtly spin of his heel. But his expression was one of a man in pain.

She saw it so clearly: The fucking Qun. He was still in that cage, still unable to choose. Still penalized for any choice he made because no choice at all was actually acceptable.

She touched his face. “Sten, we don’t have to… I can just... go.”

“No.” He shook his head. “I could stand anything but that.”

The relief in her face was instant and huge; the knowledge that he would see this through, that he wouldn’t let his fears break what had just begun. She couldn't help it, the tears, and she tried to hide them. He wiped them away, however, once again, then kissed her once more, hungrily, and this time they could not seem to find a way to be close enough. He sighed, and slid his hands under her body, lifting her effortlessly to him. He carried her through the open door, then over to his bed, setting her down there with almost unexpected gentleness.

The room was dark and chilly, and he turned away, regarding the fireplace, slightly perplexed, almost humorous in his indignance. “There… is no fire.”

She concentrated for the barest second, her face sober and focused, and the candle on the bedside erupted in a fragile, dancing flame. “You forget," she said. "I don’t need one.”

“Your magic.” He smiled. “I should have remembered.”

She stood up, and in a single, fluid movement, pulled her tunic over her head. Then she bent, and lowered her breeches in a common, almost touchingly awkward movement, and within twenty seconds or so, she was naked before him, lovely where she was lovely, unlovely where she was imperfect, and scarred occasionally in many of the places in between.

Ultimately, she was just a woman, waiting in the dark. A glimmer in the candlelight.

“So here I am,” she said. “No magic. Just me.”

He caught his breath, and stepped forward to her. As before, he did not immediately touch her. He walked a small circle in the chilly air, instead, observing and thinking. He looked at her. Simply looked. Dipping his head to view her forward, sideways, and frontways… so that she was shy and even momentarily sorry that she had been so brave.

He paused again when he was before her. Then he met her eyes. “I have never seen anything so beautiful, kadan… as in this moment.”

She was undone again, and covered her face once more, fleetingly, laughing in spite of herself. He pulled her hands away, teasing. “What a coward you are,” he said, smiling, “away from battle.”

“I’m not a coward,” she gritted. “You’re just fond of theatrics. I, however, am not. And I am cold, and feeling decidedly vulnerable.”

“All right, kadan. Turnabout is certainly fair play.” He removed his own clothing efficiently and quickly, without modesty or question. His body she had seen before, on their travels, and it was here that, as always, he entered from plainness into a kind of hidden beauty. The heavy, beautifully muscled frame, the powerful arms, the silky, bronze glistening skin. No wonder Morrigan had thrown herself at him.

“Better?” he asked, smiling. Perhaps the slightest ghost of insecurity, and she was secretly happy at this small realization of his actual mortal status, in spite of his loveliness.

“Better,” she answered.

She stepped closer to him, running her hands over his chest, then reached up behind his neck to pull away the cloth that bound his braided hair in place there at his neck, spilling them in pale silvery strands about his face. Then she licked the place where his shoulder met his throat, and he groaned, then bent to kiss her again.

When he pulled back, he surprised her by running his finger along a scar, gently, above her breast. “I wanted to stop this one,” he said. “I remember it.”

“I remember it too,” she said.

“And?” he teased. He bent his head, running his tongue along the scar. She shuddered, but pushed him away, laughing.

“You would have died, Sten,” she said. “If you had.”

He ran his hands down her body, still tentative and marveling that such contact was allowable. “Tell me again,” he smiled. He kissed her navel. The small of her back. The hollow between her breasts. The soft place on her inner thigh. “I find I like it when you laugh at me.”

“I’ve had so much practice,” she said, grinning. Then she looked around in mock confusion. “Sten… wait… no pry bar?”

He actually laughed at that, softly. “We can forego it, perhaps… just this once.”

“Morrigan will be thrilled,” she said dryly.

“Wait,” he said, irritated, and her heart leaped again in the hidden fear that he might yet nevertheless convince himself to stop. But he only looked around ruefully. “I am sorry,” he said tersely. “Sorry about the fire. It is something I should have remedied straight away.”

“Sten, my love,” she said. “Remember. I don’t need a fire.” She looked to the hearth, and it exploded in a fine burst of flame and fury, sparks flying outward. Then she bent her head, still between kisses, and brought her lips to his chest, his nipples, the hollow of his throat; running her hands along the beautiful bronze skin, the powerful frame she had come to know so well at camp.

They kissed again, and this time it wasn’t broken for more talk, but in urgency and action. Even as she lost herself in it, she realized that he had lifted her again, and in a matter of seconds they were on his bed, and breathless in the pause before what came next.

And then there was no more waiting. And without thought or effort, the joining had occurred.

As she lay beneath him, pale beneath his darkness, in the pause between moments, her eyes searched his, still afraid in spite of herself.

“Don’t think,” she whispered. “Don’t think.”

“I can assure you, love, that I am not thinking,” he said gently. He caressed her face, then kissed her—mouth, throat, breast… mouth again. Then he saw that she was still caught, and silent.

“Kadan…”

For a brief moment she was more vulnerable than he had ever seen her before. “You’re with me?” she asked. “You won’t change your mind?”

“No,” he said gently. “This night is yours. I will not leave your side.”

She sighed, shakily, and he realized how afraid she had been, still, that he would leave. “All right,” she said. “But whatever you do, don’t you dare listen to the Qun.”

He caressed her face with his hand, then kissed her.

“I can assure you, kadan, that I am not listening to the Qun,” he smiled. Then he brought his lips down the softness of her body, from throat to breast, to belly, and smiled when she shivered.

“Sten,” she said, panting slightly. “Tell me what it means. That word,”

He raised his head, and smiled. “It is… in Qunlat, it is, roughly, ‘where the heart lies.’”

She surprised him by looking stricken, almost angry. “Really?”

“What is it?” he asked, puzzled.

“You mean to say… you ass… that you have been telling me you loved me,” she said, “every day since the night you sent me away from you? By the fire?”

He dropped his eyes for a moment. “Yes, I suppose that is correct.”

Her eyes, for the briefest instance, were as fierce as his, and as flame-colored. A pause of fully five seconds in which they listened to one another breathe, and to nothing else.

“All right,” she said, low. “Make it up to me. In these few moments of ours, before darkness. Tell me again, Sten, in all the ways that you are able. Make it up to me.”

“I fully intend to, kadan,” he said. He smiled again, and began to move, slowly and silkily, and she gasped in spite of herself. She said a word against his ear, in elvish, and he sighed, and whispered back to her—a word or two, equally private, loving and heated, and only for her—against the softness of her neck.

And then no more words were needed, by either of them.

The morrow would come, along with its inevitable fear, and pain, and blood. They had no illusions about whether or not the bars of their separate cages still existed, for either of them.

But for this one, small moment of grace, they were free. And the darkness was kind.