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Of Diamonds And Dust

Chapter Text

In the shining opulence of Orzammar’s Diamond Quarter, the birth of the second child of the Aeducan family is cause for great celebration. The nobility of Orzammar flood the palace with gifts of gems, ceremonial armor, and other such finery that does a better job of flattering the king than of serving any use to his newborn daughter. Favor is earned and alliances are evaluated as Marja Aeducan gurgles in her crib, oblivious to the fact that she is second in line to the throne her father sits upon.

 

In the tired streets of Orzammar’s Dust Town, the birth of the second child of the Brosca family passes with little notice. The people here have better things to do than fawn over yet another Casteless infant. An exception lies in the boy’s sister, a child herself, who devotes her time to caring for her new sibling. Darvis Brosca sleeps contently in her arms, unaware of the mark on his face or the meaning it carries.

 

At seven years old, Marja is the darling of the palace and the favorite of the king. Most of her time is spent with her tutors, where she learns politics, culture, and history from the large tomes brought in from the Shaperate. Any time not spent in the library is spent at her father’s side, where she sees these concepts put into practice. Marja prefers the practical lessons. Even at a young age she is a natural at charming the court, and her father delights in showing her off.

Her only other companions in these times are her brothers. Bhelen, barely old enough to walk, trails after his sister whenever he can, and Marja loves spoiling him in return. Trian, the eldest, considers himself too mature to indulge his siblings in their childish games, but he's still Marja's brother, and she supposes she loves him anyway.

 

At seven years old, Darvis knows the alleys of Orzammar like the back of his hand. The alleys are dirty and dark, but they are hidden, and nobody yells at him for venturing past the limits of Dust Town. Occasionally he comes across others in the alley, people he instinctively knows to be dangerous, but they pay little mind to the scrawny boy with skinned knees scampering past.

This is where he meets Leske. Leske teaches him how to pick a spot and sit in wait until the moment is just right. Together, they dart into the street, Leske knocking over carts and stalls as a distraction while Darvis snatches coins from the hand of some unsuspecting citizen. It’s risky business but the boys are small and quick and reckless, and at the end of the day the guard has more dangerous criminals to spend their time chasing. Rica has given up on telling him to stop and now merely tells him to be careful. Darvis knows she worries, but the look of relief on his sister’s face when he hands her the coin is enough to make it worth the danger.

 

When Marja is twelve, she meets her first assassin. He comes in the night, and it is only by chance Marja awakens in time to scream for the guards. She cries as the guards drag the body of the assassin out of her room, and her father chides her. You are royalty, he says, and royalty remains strong. Marja takes his words to heart and swallows her tears. The next day she attends court with her father as she always does, smiling her usual smile at the fellow nobility, and silently wondering which of them paid to have her killed.

Until then Marja has regarded her combat training as a mildly interesting subject, much like her history lessons. Now, she commits herself to the training with greater vigor ever before. Her trainer gives her a ceremonial sword and shield, all bright and polished and beautiful. Marja, however, prefers the large double-handed greatsword. Some of the older warriors snicker at the sight of the young princess struggling to lift the large blade. Trian even refuses to practice with her, claiming it’s beneath him. Marja pays them little mind. She seeks out someone who will spar with her- the son of one of her father’s warriors, a boy her age named Gorim- and practices every day until she can wield the imposing weapon with ease. The weight of the sword carries some comfort, and with the weapon at her bedside she is able to sleep soundly again.

 

When Darvis is twelve, he meets Beraht. He is returning home after a typical day, hoping that his mother will be passed out by now and that Rica has found enough food to make dinner. Instead, he finds Rica conversing with an imposing man he’s never seen before. The man, he learns, is Beraht, and he has come with a job offering. Rica’s face is pinched and worried, but she tries to inject some brightness into her voice as she talks about the opportunity Beraht has for her. The man has a predatory look that sets Darvis on edge, but it's too late to hide the stolen coins clutched in his fist. Beraht's eyes fix on the money immediately. And where did you get that from, he wonders. Darvis glares at him defiantly, and he laughs. I might have a job for you, too.

Darvis already has his own knives, but the set of daggers he gets from Beraht is shiny and new. Darvis runs his fingers lightly over the edges, admiring the handiwork. He’s not stupid. He knows that Beraht can’t be trusted. The jobs Darvis gets now are far more dangerous than running through the streets and pickpocketing strangers. But the money is good and for now that’s all that matters.

 

By the time Marja is sixteen, she knows the intricacies of court inside and out. She studies each of her acquaintances carefully, taking note of the different ways each can be persuaded and the unique signs that mark their lies. They do the same to her, always searching for something that they can exploit. Marja keeps careful control of all she does, offering smiles and soothing words and nothing more to the circling nobles that wish to win her favor and undermine her power in equal measure.

Fortunately, Marja has Bhelen and Gorim at her side. Bhelen rarely gets involved in the complex schemes of the nobility, and in fact finds amusement in most of the mechanics of the court. Rarely does a ceremony go by without a sarcastic, under-the-breath comment from the young prince, and he is one of the few who can coax a sincere laugh from his sister.

Gorim is even better. He often jokes that Marja has no need for his services as her second in battle, but Marja is thankful for him all the same. Steadfast and loyal, he is everything a warrior should be, and one of the few people Marja knows that truly possesses something resembling honor.

Her relationship with Trian, however, only grows more strained. As time passes, his resentment of his sister festers. It comes to a boil on the day Marja finally convinces him to spar with her on the training grounds. Trian is highly skilled in combat, but he underestimates his sister, and to the surprise of them both Marja manages to knock him flat. The spectators laugh, and Trian has never liked to be laughed at. He leaps to his feet and glares at Marja, dark fire in his eyes. Don’t forget that I’m the one who’s going to be king, he spits. I’m going to rule, and you’re going to be married off to whatever House pays the most. He turns and stalks away, and Marja swallows her own angry words as she watches him go. She wants to fight back, but Trian is right about one thing; being the future king carries a certain power. For now, she has to hold her tongue.

 

By the time Darvis is sixteen, he’s well-known as a thief and lackey of the Carta. He’s good with his daggers and his fists, and can lift a purse as easy as breathing. In a way, he’s lucky. The Carta is respected and feared, and membership provides protection from the other Dust Town criminals. The job is simple. He follows orders, gets the job done, and brings home just enough coin to ensure he and Rica won’t starve. If the job is also unpleasant, well...most things in Dust Town are unpleasant. He doesn’t expect anything else.

Rica, however, carries an endless optimism. She speaks of someday with a smile. Someday when she finds a wealthy patron. Someday when they pay off their debts. Someday when he’s free of the Carta and can become whatever he wants. Darvis doesn’t see the bright future she describes, but he can’t bear to tarnish her hope by arguing.

The Carta isn’t all that bad. Darvis is good at what he does, and he has Leske to watch his back. Leske is sarcastic and crude and smiles like he’s laughing at the world. They make a good team, and Darvis knows he would have landed in the Orzammar cells long ago if not for his friend.

The Orzammar guard is not the only danger. The Carta may offer protection and payment, but it also doles out punishment. Darvis knows what happens to those defy orders, so when Beraht visits he bites his tongue and smothers his temper. His family’s welfare is dependent on this man. It’s just hard to remember that when Beraht speaks to Rica the way he does. Once, Darvis leaps to her defense, until a blow from Beraht sends him to the ground.  You’re useful, he snarls, but you’re not the only lowlife for hire. Remember that, and be a little thankful for all I’ve done for you. There are a million things Darvis wants to say, but he sees Rica trembling in the corner, and he says none of them.

 

Marja is twenty when she hears that a Warden will be visiting Orzammar. The rumors say he is looking for aid against an upcoming Blight. The dwarves hold little sympathy for him; darkspawn on the surface are no concern to them. But it is still tradition to honor the Wardens, and as dictated by tradition there will be a banquet, a Proving, and every other piece of ceremony the nobles think will impress their visitor from the surface.

The Warden’s visit is not the only reason for celebration and ceremony. Marja has at last been given her first moment of command- the first of many, she believes. Rumors are sweeping the nobility, saying that the king will pass over his eldest son and make Marja his heir. Marja has heard them all, and knows they are more than idle gossip. She has known for a long time that Trian would make for a terrible king. He is stubborn and callous, and the only favor he holds in the Assembly is with the staunch traditionalists.

It's an opportunity Marja can't pass up. The king will be looking to impress the Grey Warden, and her mission will provide the perfect opportunity. If all goes well, this will be the last push needed for her father to officially name Marja as the future Queen of Orzammar.

 

Darvis is twenty when he hears that a Warden will be visiting Orzammar. The man’s arrival would not matter to him in the least if not for the Provings. But the nobles never miss a chance to show off their favorite pastime to the visitor, and Beraht makes a lot of money off of gamblers. He sends word to Darvis and Leske to ready themselves for an important task on the day of the Proving. No more details are given, but Darvis knows what to expect. For all the nobles like to talk about honor and the favor of the ancestors, most Proving champions are decided by people like Beraht before they even step into the arena. He simply needs some rogues that are good at not being noticed to make sure everything goes according to plan.

Like everything they do, the risk is significant. If Darvis and Leske are discovered, the nobles will have their heads. But for once, Darvis has a good feeling about what the future holds. Rica is positive that she has a patron now, a wealthy noble that is enamored with her. She needs a little more time, and then they’ll have enough coin to last them the rest of their lives.

It's an opportunity Darvis can't pass up. Beraht normally be keeps eyes on Rica, but with the nobility flaunting their wealth for the Warden, he will have his hands full running a dozen different schemes. Darvis just needs to do his job and keep Beraht happy. With a little luck, by the time the ceremony is done Rica will have secured a spot alongside her noble. Once that happens, they’ll never need to turn to Beraht for help again.

 

A Warden is visiting the grand city of Orzammar, and everything is about to change.

Chapter Text

Days never end well that begin with Beraht at the door.

The Carta boss enters the Brosca home without introduction, pushing his way into the cramped and dirty house with a rough, unsatisfied look on his face. “Rica!” he barks, and Darvis’s fists automatically clench. Rica shoots her brother a warning look before turning to Beraht. He stares her down coldly. “I haven’t gotten an update this week. Do you have a patron yet or not?”

Rica puts on her best calming expression. She has all the charm that Darvis lacks, but even that is rarely enough to soothe Beraht.  “I was waiting until I had more to tell you.”

“Don’t make me wait forever, precious,” Beraht growls, turning to pace across the room. Rica’s eyes follow him warily. She’s not in her work attire yet; she wears a simple dress and no makeup, and her dark red hair is pulled back in a loose bun. She’s only a few years older than Darvis, but at times like this her eyes are lined with worry in a way that makes her seem older. “Honestly, you've gotta start putting in a little more effort,” Beraht continues, “You've got the looks, but that’ll only last so long.

An angry noise escapes from the back of Darvis’s throat, and Beraht’s beady eyes slide over to him. “Something to say, boy?”

“Yeah- don’t talk to her like that,” Darvis snaps, even though he knows it's a mistake. It’s not smart to talk back to someone like Beraht. But then, Darvis has never been particularly smart.

Beraht steps forward, bearing down over Darvis. “As long as you both eat off my plate, I’ll talk to her however I damn well want. And you,” he says as he jabs a finger at Darvis’s chest, “will keep your head down and says “aye” to any job low enough for duster scum.” From behind Beraht’s back, Rica gives Darvis a cautionary, pleading look. She’s right, Darvis thinks to himself. He knows she is, but there are times he just can’t stop himself. For now, however, he’s able to turn his eyes down and bite his tongue. The taste of blood fills his mouth, but he’ll bleed worse if he says what's on his mind.

Beraht backs away, pleased, and turns back to Rica. “And the entire reason I did all this for you was so you could hunt down a noble. But at the moment, my investment isn’t bearing much gold. My patience is growing thin. If you can’t find a patron, it’ll be up to you to pay me back for all those fancy dresses and poetry lessons. And you don’t want to be in the position of owing me any more money.”

Rica pales. “I…I might have someone,” she says hesitantly. “I can’t promise anything yet, but he seems interested. Please, I just need a little more time.”

Beraht snorts. “We’ll see.” He looks towards Darvis. “As for you, an important job just came up. Leske will fill you in. Don’t screw this up- your whole family is on loose sand with me right now.” Without another word, he strides out of the room, and Rica lets out a heavy sigh of relief.

“Fuck him,” Darvis says furiously to the closed door, and Rica gives him a warning look.

“You have to be more careful. One day that temper is going to get you into real trouble. Now that Beraht’s getting impatient, he’s going to be much worse than usual.”

“I just hate to see you treated like that,” Darvis mutters, and Rica smiles fondly at him.

“You’re a good brother. You’ve always tried to protect me. But you have to trust me. This patron I mentioned… this could get us out of here for good.” She looks around at their surroundings, her eyes wistful. “You should see the homes some of these nobles have… more rooms than I can count, with silk sheets and golden trimmings on every bed. With that kind of coin, we could leave all this behind forever. We could be something.”

“Well, we need to act fast.” The thought of simply escaping into a fantasy of gold and silk is a pretty one, but that’s not how the world works. Any good fortune Rica finds, Beraht will claim. But the Carta’s dealings have been expanding, and with the nobles all preparing to impress a visitor from the surface, Beraht’s been busier than ever with his schemes. If Rica secures her position soon, they can make their move while Beraht’s attention is elsewhere. Once they get themselves- or at least Rica- into a house surrounded by noble guards, they might stand a chance of leaving Beraht in the dust.

It’s a plan based on luck, which is something neither Darvis nor Rica have ever had, but it’s better than nothing.

Darvis shakes his head, batting away the distracting thoughts. For now, he has to follow Beraht’s orders. “I better get on my way.”

“And I need to get dressed,” Rica sighs. “Honestly, these noble fashions are going to be the end of me. My newest dress has about a thousand buttons on each sleeve.” With that, she disappears behind her small partition in the corner of the room.

Darvis heads for the door, but stops on the way out to check on their mother. She lies slumped over the table, somehow still asleep despite Beraht’s loud entrance. Darvis sighs and grabs the half-full tankard in front of her. He rummages through the kitchen to find a skin of water and adds some to the cup, filling it to the brim. Hopefully the watered down alcohol will prevent her from drinking herself into a stupor again; if not, it will at least keep her from wasting money on another cask. When he’s done, he slides the drink back in front of her and nudges her shoulder. It takes a few more nudges and some water flicked across her face before she wakes with a start.

“Rica?” She squints at Darvis, her mouth setting itself into a deep frown. If Darvis looks hard, he can see where Rica gets her beauty. Their mother has the same dark red hair and wide eyes, and must have been pretty once, before she started living out of the bottle. Darvis supposes his own thick brown hair and hard-lined features must come from his father, although he can never be sure; he has no memories of the man who disappeared long ago. But he wonders if a resemblance might explain the disappointment that colors his mother’s face whenever she looks at him. “Oh. It’s you. What are you bothering me for now?”

Darvis rolls his eyes. “You blacked out again, Mother. Try drinking some water today.”

She makes a grumbling noise and reaches for the cup. “Don’t tell me my business.”

“You’re going to end up killing yourself like this,” Darvis snaps, and his mother lets out a harsh laugh as she takes a long drink. She doesn’t seem to notice the watered-down alcohol, which Darvis counts as a small victory. He sighs. “I have to go. Just try to dry up before I get home.”

But he’s lost her attention now, so he leaves her to her drink and steps out into the streets of Dust Town.

 

Dust Town is the type of place nobody lives unless it’s all they’ve got. The streets are full of beggars and criminals, each one with the telltale brand of the Casteless. There’s not a building in the town that’s not half falling apart, and the buildings are for the lucky ones.

Darvis’s own ramshackle house is squeezed into a corner on one of the backstreets of the town. Leske leans against it, examining his knuckles with boredom until he catches sight of Darvis. A sharp grin appears on his face and he calls out, “About sodding time! I was about to bust in to get you. Maybe say hi to Rica.” He bounces his eyebrows at the last comment.

Darvis heaves a sigh and pushes past his friend. “Not in the mood for that right now, Leske.”

Leske snorts and swings his long braids over his shoulder. “Oh, I do enjoy your lively banter. But since you’re in such a hurry… we have an appointment at the Provings today.”

We do?”

Leske sets off down the old dirt road, Darvis falling into place next to him. “You heard me. These orders come straight from Beraht.”

“But why us?” The Provings are a noble’s game, a setup for pompous warriors to feel like they’re gaining honor or some shit by bashing each other with swords in front of an audience. Everyone knows that, just like everyone knows that the games are often fixed by people like Beraht. It’s usually simple enough to interfere with the smaller Provings that happen every week or so. But today’s Provings are part of the ceremony for the surface visitors and the king’s army. And Provings aren’t involved in Darvis’s usual line of work- he's a thief, not a bookie. 

“The fighter that Beraht has money on is a bit of underdog. We need to make sure he has a certain advantage over his opponents.” Leske fishes a vial out from his belt and rolls it casually between his fingers. “You’re the quickest thief in Dust Town, aren’t you? Beraht wants you to do some reverse pickpocketing. A bit of this in the opponent’s drink, and our guy is guaranteed a win.”

“And how are we supposed to get within fifty feet of the place?”

Leske pockets the vial and shrugs. “Beraht got us papers. I didn’t exactly ask a lot of questions.”

Darvis frowns. The Provings will be crawling with the higher castes. Getting in will be risky enough, let alone sneaking drugs into a warrior’s drink. But the only thing more dangerous than getting caught by the guard is defying Beraht. Still, Darvis sighs. “I don’t like it.”

“What a shock. You’re usually in such a pleasant mood.” Leske jabs Darvis playfully with his elbow, and Darvis pushes him away with a huff.

His attention slides away from Darvis as they walk through the town. They’ve both lived on these streets their whole lives, and greetings are exchanged with casual familiarity. Or rather, Leske exchanges familiar greetings while Darvis mutters under his breath. This is how the two of them have always been; Leske chatting and joking openly as Darvis hangs back under a cloud of dark humor. By all rights they should drive each other crazy. Somehow, they don’t.

“You two!” One voice in particular cuts through the street, and Leske adopts a charismatic smile as they approach an old, bedraggled woman sitting by a makeshift tent on the side of the street. She sits awkwardly, her bad legs hidden by a long blanket, and gives them a lopsided grin. “Spare any coin today, boys?”

“My lovely Nadezda!” Leske swoops forward to pat her hand. “How are you this fine day?”

“I’d be better with some coin,” she replies, turning her gaze to each of them in turn.

Darvis raises an eyebrow. “Seriously? Do we look like we have coin to spare?”

“You watch your tone around your elders!” Nadezda says, shaking a finger at him. “You’re certainly better off than I am. Would it kill either of you to show a bit of charity?”

“Sadly, it very well might,” Leske says, pulling away from the woman. “We have urgent business to attend to.”

She waves them off. “Yes, yes, scurry off to tend to Beraht. But when he pays you, remember those who could use a spare piece of silver.”

The comment earns a grim chuckle from Darvis. “I promise, the day I have a silver to spare, I’ll let you know.”

“And you watch that mouth of yours!” she calls as they walk away. Leske shakes his head and laughs.

“Always a pleasure!” he calls back. But Darvis knows that beneath the levity, Nadezda makes him nervous. She was like them once- an errand runner for the Carta. But she got unlucky. One encounter with the guards was all it took, and after they broke her kneecaps beyond repair, she was useless to the Carta. Now she spends her days begging in the streets and reminding people like Darvis and Leske how easily they could suffer the same fate.

 

Getting into the Provings turns out to be shockingly simple. Leske flashes some papers at the guard at the door, who takes one look and hurries him and Darvis through a side entrance. They move quickly through the hallways to the warrior’s quarters.

“The guy we’re betting on is Everd, and his opponent's room should be…ah! Here we are!” Leske motions to a particular room. “They all get ale before the fight- it should be in here waiting for him.” Leske presses against the wall next to the doorway, keeping watch from the shadows as Darvis pulls out a lockpick and begins to work.

The Provings hall is impressive- all sturdy pillars and carved walls and high ceilings meant to seem intimidating, but the locks are shit. The door opens easily, and the ale is waiting inside just as Leske promised. It takes less than a minute to finish the task, and as they leave Darvis is marveling at how simple the job was.

His brief optimism is rudely interrupted when they pass a room and Darvis catches sight of a man sprawled on the floor in a drunken stupor.

“Leske, did you say our guy was Everd?”

“Yeah, why?” Leske follows Darvis’s gaze- first to the man on the floor, then to the nameplate next to the doorframe. “Shit.”

Darvis swiftly moves into the room, pulling Leske in behind him. “Shit, shit, shit,” he echoes as the familiar stench of alcohol hits him. He prods the man cautiously with his toe, and gets only a grunt in return. “He’s not winning anything in this state. This is bad for Beraht.”

Leske puts a hand to his temple, his typical easy expression marred with worry. “This is bad for us. If this sod doesn’t win, Beraht will gut us and feed us the nugs. And that’s a direct quote. This idiot’s going to get us killed unless we do something.”

“Well, what the fuck are we supposed to do?” Darvis demands. He prods the drunk man harder. “Get up, you useless…” he continues muttering and kicking the man until Leske grabs his arm. A grin is sketched on his face now, and he’s looking at Darvis expectantly.

“Aren’t you supposed to be the meanest thing with a blade in Orzamaar?”

“I thought I was the quickest thief in Dust Town,” Darvis says cautiously. He knows Leske too well to think that flattery like this will lead to anything good.

Leske shrugs off his comment. “Everd’s armor is right here. Helmet and everything. And you’re just the right size.”

It takes a moment for the implication to set in. Darvis stares at Leske. “No.”

“Come on-“

No. If I get caught these nobles will have my head-”

“Beraht will have both our heads if we let this asshole lose.” A voice rings out from the hallway, calling for the fighters, and Leske gives Darvis a frantic, pleading look. “We don’t have time to argue about this, and even if we did we wouldn’t have a better option.”

“It’s a terrible idea!” Darvis tugs at his beard anxiously, looking between Everd, the armor laid out neatly near the door, and Leske’s desperate expression.

“It’ll be fine! Trust me!”

Darvis groans, but he knows Leske is right. If they leave now, Everd will be disqualified. The Carta will lose a lot of money. And Beraht will take out his frustration on all of them.

“Fucking fine! Help me get this armor on.”

Leske grins triumphantly and hurries to help Darvis strap on the noble’s armor. It’s heavier than Darvis is used to, and it takes some maneuvering to fully hide his braided beard and long hair, but in the end Darvis is ready to enter the Provings with a false name and a stolen sword.

“This is a terrible idea,” he repeats to Leske before he leaves, but Leske only chuckles. His smile is wide, although his eyes betray the slightest hint of worry.

“Don’t talk and you’ll be fine. Now go kick some upper-caste ass.”

Chapter Text

For the tenth time that morning, Marja twists in front of her mirror to check over her armor. The straps, the fitting, the polish- everything needs to be perfect for today if she’s going to stand up to the scrutiny of the Assembly. She’s brought out her best armor for the occasion-the suit of mail once belonged to her great-grandmother, the Assembly should appreciate that- and her pale hair is braided elaborately in the latest fashion. As long as it took, it was worth it. Now that she’s finally taking command of her own military commission, she’s not going to ruin it by showing up to court looking like some common soldier.

“Your shield, my lady?” Gorim stands at her doorway, mildly observing Marja’s self-inspection.

“Yes, yes. I can’t let people forget what we’re celebrating; they should see me as warrior.”

“As opposed to the Paragon of Beauty?” Gorim asks with a teasing smirk, and Marja playfully bats his shoulder.

“You’re impossible,” she says, but she can’t deny that his mere presence makes her feel better. Gorim’s armor has also been painstakingly polished, and his golden-brown hair is recently trimmed. As Marja’s second, Gorim has just as much at stake today as she does. And yet he manages to smile jokingly at her as if it were any other day.

“One can’t take all this marching about too seriously. It’s not good for the health.” He smiles easily. Marja rolls her eyes but lets a smile of her own slip onto her face as she exits her room and Gorim falls into step at her side.  “Speaking of, what’s the plan of attack?”

Marja tilts her head back in thought. The Diamond Quarter will be full today, not just of nobles but of merchants and smiths and warriors all decked out for ceremony. No better time to see and be seen. “We’ll browse the market, make an appearance at the Provings, and be back in time for the banquet. And try our hardest to avoid Trian.”

Gorim’s face falls a fraction. “Aye, he’s in a state today. I heard him raging at one of the servants this morning from two rooms away.”

“Prick,” Marja mutters, but that's the brother she knows. “Perhaps we should go to the Provings first. We won’t run into him there. The whole spectacle is beneath our beloved prince.”

“There won’t be much peace for you at the Provings,” Gorim says, a chuckle creeping into his voice. “From what I hear, half the men fighting today will be claiming to do so in your honor. You’ll have quite a few suitors clamoring for your favor. Lord Harrowmont in particular is convinced that one of his sons will sweep you off your feet.”

Marja swallows down a frustrated sigh. She knows that such courtship is an inherent part of the political games they play in the Assembly; any such alliance she makes could affect the entire city for years to come. She acknowledges that eventually, she will likely have to throw herself on the sword of marriage for the sake of such politics. The knowledge doesn’t make the process any less grating.

“Perhaps I’ll meet these suitors in the arena,” she says scathingly. “We’ll see who knocks who off their feet.”

Gorim frowns. “The traditionalists may see that as an insult.”

“The traditionalists take most things as an insult. The people would love it.” The more Marja thinks about it, the more appealing the idea is. “And so would Father, for that matter. Nobody in the Assembly would argue with him.”

Noise from the gathering outside becomes more obvious as Marja and Gorim approach the large palace door. Marja takes a deep breath and schools her expression into a smile. The celebrations are in full swing now; the court is waiting.

“Ready to head into battle?” Marja asks Gorim, her hand on the door.

Gorim inclines his head. “I always am, my lady.”

 

The streets of the Diamond Quarter are as full as Marja expected, and it seems that everyone in attendance requires a word with the princess. Marja mills about with the people, doling out flattery and intimidation as needed. In between conversations, she and Gorim exchange comments in low tones. One noble throws sharp words after a disagreement; he will need to be watched. Another seems over-eager in her compliments; she’s fishing for a favor, which they might be able to work to their advantage. Everything is mentally filed away for future use.

Eventually, an all-too familiar voice cuts through the crowd. “Marja!”

Marja bites down on her lip to stop herself from cursing aloud. Gorim tenses beside her, and Marja lays a reassuring hand on his arm before turning to greet her brother. “Astra vala, Trian!”

Trian looks as stiff and pompous as always in his ceremonial outfit. Bhelen trails after him with a weary expression. Although all three siblings share the Aeducan looks- pale blonde hair, sharp features, grey eyes- the two brothers could not be more different in personality. Marja can’t help but feel a pang of sympathy as she wonders how much of the day Bhelen has already spent tending to Trian’s moods. Unlike Trian, Bhelen greets Marja with enthusiasm. “Astra vala! It’s a pleasant surprise to see you out in the market.”

“Yes,” Trian adds, eyes narrowed. “Especially since you should be attending our father at the feast today. Have you so little respect for him that you ignore his wishes to mill about with common folk?”

Gorim frowns. “Lord Harrowmont told me we wouldn’t be needed for hours at least-”

“Silence!” Trian spits at Gorim. “If I want the opinion of my sibling’s second, I will ask for it.”

“Don’t speak to Gorim that way!” Marja snaps immediately. Trian turns angrily to her, and she fights to push back the stab of regret. She’s had a lifetime of experience in dealing with her brother; she knows better than to provoke him. He’s always had more temper than tact, and is prone to letting personal issues spill over into matters of business. It’s easier for everyone involved if Marja stays on his good side.

But she refuses to stand by while he treats Gorim like dirt. Marja stares her brother down steadily, positioning herself between him and Gorim as she does so.

“I speak to lower houses as they should be spoken to,” Trian says slowly, as if explaining a simple concept to a rather dull-witted child. “Now go do as I say.”

Marja bristles at the order, but forces herself to remain calm. The last thing she needs is a shouting match with her brother on the streets for all to see. When she does speak, her voice is soft but sharp. “It truly is adorable how you think you can order me around, you know. It’s almost as though you think you’re some kind of king.”

Trian’s face turns an impressive shade of red. “I’d advise you to watch that tongue, dear sister. Sometimes I think you forget who the heir actually is.” He stalks away, turning over his shoulder to shout, “Bhelen!”

Bhelen sighs darkly at the order, but he shakes it off and follows his brother with an apologetic glance at Marja as he goes.

Well, that could have gone worse, Marja thinks. Beside her, Gorim fidgets unhappily. Trian intimidates Gorim more than he admits- Trian has that effect on a lot of people, unfortunately. A side effect of being next in line for the throne, Marja supposes, although that may not be a position he holds much longer.

Marja mentally pulls herself back from the thought. There are rumors, yes, and the rumors grow with each passing day. Anyone with eyes can see that Marja is the king’s true favorite, and Trian’s attitude has done little to earn him any steadfast allies in the Court. It would not be completely unreasonable to expect the king to pass over his eldest son. But it would be dangerous for Marja to boldly assume he intends to do so, and so for now she plays her part and tries not to antagonize her brother any more than is strictly necessary.

“Ignore him, at least for today,” Marja says firmly to Gorim. “We’ve a lot to look forward to. Let’s not let Trian ruin it.”

 

They never do make it to the Provings, unfortunately. The news reaches them before they even leave the Diamond Quarter- the Provings came to an abrupt end due to some scandal, although nobody quite agrees upon what happened. Any details that make it past the arena are muddled- Marja hears contradicting reports that ring with various degrees of truth.

With few other options, Marja and Gorim return to the palace. The sense of urgency that permeated the streets is absent here; the nobles drift through the banquet hall under a façade of calm opulence. Still, when Marja at last finds her father, he is deep in conversation with a group of guards.

“Then take care of it,” he orders fiercely, and the guards hurry away. The king sighs and raises a hand to his head in frustration. In moments like this, it’s easy to see how King Endrin earned every silver hair in his long beard.

“Astra vala, Father,” Marja says, and his look of anxiety melts away.

“Astra vala, my daughter.” His wrinkled face breaks into a fond smile. “How fine you look in your great-grandmother’s armor.”

“I’m honored to wear it,” Marja replies, bowing her head slightly in respect. “What news do you have of the Provings today? I’m afraid I’ve only heard rumors so far.”

Her father shakes his head. “The guard is sorting everything out as we speak. We’ll have the full story by tomorrow or they shall answer for their incompetence. But we should not allow such a thing to sully our ceremony tonight.” A scowl crosses his face. “Sadly, our guest of honor does not agree. Our Warden friend was to be in attendance tonight, but he insists on aiding with the search. I can only hope this doesn’t interfere with our mission tomorrow.”

Marja raises an eyebrow. “What in the world has happened that would cause a Warden to miss your fine feast?”

“The Wardens have a habit of seeking out oddities, I’m afraid,” the king sighs. “And this one has obviously not come to pay mind to ceremony. He claims a Blight is on the way and that they need recruits. But there are some things surfacers cannot understand.” As the king continues to speak, anger begins to color his words. “What the Casteless did today brought dishonor to many fighters in the Proving. They will see him answer for his actions, not be whisked away to join some surface army.”

Marja raises her eyebrows. A Casteless fighting in the Provings? The rumors circulating the city are beginning to make sense. “You mean this person defeated our fighters? Perhaps the Warden’s interest is not unearned. If there is something to be gained from enlisting such a fighter…”

“Not this again.” Her father sounds tired, but Marja presses on.

“If we allow Casteless to join in the army-”

“I have heard this argument from you and Bhelen enough times.” The reply is sharp, and Marja holds back her words. What the king says is true- the argument is long-standing. The more progressive families of the Court are in support of the allowance of those born Castless to join the Warrior Caste. It is a sharp break from tradition, but it would go far in improving the lives of many within the city. More practically, it would bolster the ranks of the dwindling dwarven army and drain influence from the Carta. No matter how many times Marja and her younger brother make these points, however, the majority of the Assembly remains steadfastly traditional. Trian stands with them, and the power of the crown prince outweighs that of his siblings.

To his credit, the king has always allowed the discussion to be had, although he has little patience with it. Tonight, especially, his nerves are worn thin, and Marja knows she should tread softly. “I merely mean to express my surprise that an untrained alley fighter would cause so much trouble for the Proving participants. It would seem that either this Casteless is worthy of the Warrior title, or our actual warriors are not.”

The king gives her a stern frown that slowly shifts into a begrudging look of appreciation. “Well put as always, my girl. But this is an argument we should save for the Assembly. Tonight, we celebrate your first command and prepare for the morning’s battle. Come, the other nobles await.”

 

“We’re so close, Gorim,” Marja says as they return to the palace that night. The hour is late, and the halls are empty but for the occasional servant passing by. Without the crowd of the court before her, Marja feels uncharacteristically apprehensive. “I know the court loves to gossip, but… what do you think will come of all this? They say my father wishes to make me heir in the end, but it’s all speculation at this point.”

Gorim considers this for a moment, and Marja feels a rush of gratitude. She knows he will answer honestly, without fawning or worrying over her ego. At last, he says, “King Endrin will be hesitant to do something too soon. While there is precedent, it’s an uncommon act, and one that may be questioned. But he also sees the flaws in Trian, and it is obvious to all he favors you. A strong success from you would be the only excuse he needs to officially make the decision.”

Marja lets out a long breath. The words have been whispered around her for some time now, but she has scarcely let herself believe them. Future Queen of Orzammar. Try as she might to remain realistic, she wants this fiercely; it feels as if her whole life has been leading up to the title. Trian may be her blood, and she remembers a time before they resented each other, but she also knows his temper and obstinant attitude in the face of progress would only bring harm to their city.

“Then let’s give my father a strong success,” she says, and Gorim nods.

“May the ancestors look down on us with pride,” he whispers, almost to himself.

Marja smiles, her eyes distant, already imagining the possibilities. “I can see it, Gorim. We are going to be spectacular.”

Suddenly, a figure darts around the corner, looking feverishly behind him. It’s Bhelen, and when he sees Marja he grabs her arm and without explanation ushers her into an empty room.

“Bhelen! What on earth-”

“Marja, I’m so glad I ran into you. There is something very important we need to discuss immediately.”

“Prince Bhelen-” Gorim begins, following closely behind Marja, but his words halt when the prince whirls around on him. He regards Gorim for a moment, then nods.

“Yes, we can trust you.”

“Bhelen, what’s happened?” Marja demands. Her brother turns to her, the concern clear on his face, and when he speaks his voice is heavy.

“Trian is going to kill you.”

 

Chapter Text

Darvis is enjoying this far more than he probably should be.

This is the dumbest, most reckless thing he’s done in a long time. He should be more cautious, should be taking more care to properly impersonate a noble-blooded warrior. He probably shouldn’t be goading the other fighters with crass insults or using street-fighting techniques some would consider dishonorable.

But fuck it, he’s having fun.

Darvis whips around his opponent, striking out at the man's knee as he dodges the slow, heavy blow of an axe. The other fighter hits the ground, and before he can recover Darvis plants a foot solidly in his back. The man’s helmet flies off as he goes sprawling across the floor, laid flat and out of breath, and Darvis takes advantage of the moment to bring the hilt of a dagger down hard on his head.

Darvis grins viciously beneath his visor. “Take that, you nug-humping noble.” The man is beyond hearing him, but the thought of the headache he’ll be waking up with fills Darvis with vindictive joy. Cheers from the stands- cheers for him- echo louder through the arena. The eyes of so many upon him feels unnatural, but at this moment, with adrenaline rushing through his veins, Darvis can’t help but enjoy it.

A hush falls over the crowd as the announcer stands and raises his arms. “Orzammar!” the man booms, sweeping a dramatic hand toward Darvis. Behind the anouncer, the human-the Warden, Darvis assumes- watches with quiet interest. His intense gaze sends prickles down Darvis’s skin, and he doesn’t look away, even as the announcer continues to bellow. “I present your champion of the Provings- Sir Everd!”

The crowd erupts, even louder than before. I did it, Darvis thinks deliriously. He won. He impersonated a warrior and won the Provings and finished Beraht’s mission. The cheers of the crowd make him dizzy and bold, filling his head like alcohol. Darvis thrusts his fist victoriously into the air, and the crowd gets even louder.

A small protest rings from the practical part of his mind. Get out of here now, idiot. Get to Everd’s room and make the switch.

In a minute, he retorts to himself, squashing down the thought. He can enjoy the adoration of the crowds for just a bit longer. Darvis grants the audience a deep bow, and eventually begins edging his way- slowly- to the arena’s exit.

He’s nearly there when he’s slammed into by a drunk, half-dressed Everd.

“M’here!” the man cries, lurching forward, lost in an alcoholic haze. Darvis’s blood runs cold as the cries from the crowd halt in confusion.

Time to go, time to go, time to go!

He whirls around but the exit is blocked by guards who point at him accusingly. From his place on the podium, the announcer is shouting angrily. “Who is this? Who are you?!?”

Darvis’s mind races for an answer, a way out of this, but there aren’t many options. He turns to the guards, holding up his hands pleadingly. “I’m Everd! I demand you arrest this fraud!”

One of the guards hesitates, and Darvis takes the chance to make a run for it, but this time he isn’t fast enough. The guards wrestle him down, their grip tight on his arms, and before he can break free the helmet is ripped from his head.

As Darvis’s face is bared and his brand becomes visible to all, the crowd moves from confused to enraged. Vicious screams fill the arena, the cries of people booing and calling for his head. Darvis has just enough time to think I might not be getting out of this one, before a guard slams his head into the ground and the world goes dark.

 

A heavy, throbbing pain in his head is what finally manages to wake Darvis. His consciousness returns bit by bit, reluctantly acknowledging the hammering in his skull. A groan escapes his lips, and after a few moments of dull confusion, the events of the day come rushing back.

Darvis jerks up in a panic, inviting a torturous burst of pain from…pretty much everywhere. The guards aren’t known for being gentle at the best of times, but they really let him have it today.

“Look who’s alive!”

Leske’s familiar voice is a small source of comfort, even as Darvis looks up and realizes he’s speaking from a cell across the room. They’re both in cells- dark and dusty and eerily familiar.

“Alive for now,” Darvis replies, testing his sore muscles as he stands up. “Last I remember, half the city wants to execute me for ridiculing the warrior caste.”

“Nah, that’s the concussion talking,” Leske says breezily, leaning against the bars of his own cell. “For ridiculing the warrior caste, you get a public whipping. You also stole the armor, which calls for the loss of your left hand. And you befouled the smith’s work, so there goes your right hand. You’ll be flayed for impersonating a higher caste. And of course you polluted the Proving- that’s what you’ll finally be put to death for.”

“You’ve put a lot of thought into this,” Darvis says flatly, and Leske only grins.

“You were out for a while. Not much else to think about down here.”

“And I think you technically stole the armor. I just wore it.”

“Fine, keep your left hand, then,” Leske says with a roll of his eyes. “Anyway, that’s only if the guards get their hands on you. What the Carta has in mind is probably much worse.”

Darvis blinks a few times at his surroundings. So that’s why this feels familiar- these are the Carta dungeons, not the city’s. “What happened?”

“You mean after you showed your stupid branded face to the entire fucking city?” Leske’s words grow sharp, and Darvis shoots a glare in his direction.

“I didn’t exactly have a choice in that. Your idea didn’t have much of an escape plan.”

“My idea assumed you would get away from the crowds as soon as you could. Anyway, the guards hauled you off, but Beraht must have some deep connections. Guess he really wanted to punish you himself. I tried to lay low, but it’s not easy to hide from Beraht. His guys picked me up and threw me in here.” Leske gives his cell door a dirty look, as if he could will it open through sheer malice.

“Oh, good, you’re awake!”

Darvis knows the cool voice that cuts through the dungeons. He knows the expression that will accompany it even before he turns to see Jarvia leaning in the doorway. She meets his glare with a sly smirk.

“You caused a lot of trouble today, you know. The Carta lost a lot of money because of your little stunt. And now the Assembly is calling for investigations. I think the only thing Beraht hates more than losing money is being investigated.” Jarvia takes a few steps closer to Darvis’ cell, eying him the way a deepstalker eyes a nug. “You can’t begin to imagine the state he was in when he told me to retrieve you.”

“Look, we didn’t have much of a choice-” Darvis tries to explain, but Jarvia cuts him off.

“You think we want your excuses? You made a lot of trouble for us, and now you’re a liability.” She narrows her eyes, and chills run down Darvis’s spine. Beraht is one thing- vicious and brutal, certainly, but he has a straightforward way of handling things. He doesn’t enlist the aid of his second-in-command unless he wants to drag things out, and Jarvia has built herself a reputation for being creative.

As if she can sense his unease, Jarvia’s expression slips into one of cold amusement. A thought comes unbidden to Darvis’s head- at least the deepstalker doesn’t play with its food.

But Jarvia doesn’t seem to have any intentions of harming them- yet, at least. She strolls back to the door, barely giving Leske a glance on her way out. “Beraht will want to know that you’re awake. Enjoy the rest of your time, boys. There’s not much left.”

Darvis looks at Leske, and he knows they’re thinking the same thing.

We need to get out of here.

 

“What do you think you’re doing?!”

Darvis looks up at the guard, annoyed. The men Jarvia left to guard their cells are remarkably single-minded. The lock on the barred door would be easily picked if he had a little time, but he can’t even glance at the thing without inviting the guard’s wrath.

“I’m just sitting here, the way I’ve been the last ten times you checked in. Just nicely waiting for my death.”

The guard gives Darvis a dirty look but stalks away, appeased for the moment. Leske watches the exchange sullenly. As the guard walks away, he mouths to Darvis, Do something!  and looks pointedly at the lock.

Darvis answers with a pointed look of his own, motioning to the guard. You first.

“Hey! Stop with all the waving around!”

Leske heaves a silent sigh, but gives Darvis a shrug that says Fine. Allow me. He adopts a crouched posture and begins to stagger around his cell. “Ohhhh. Uggghhh. Please, I need help! Something’s wrong! I’m going to-” he cuts off mid-sentence and falls forward to the ground, making gurgling noises and twitching.

A bit dramatic in Darvis’s opinion, but it certainly attracts the attention of the guard. He runs right up the door, staring at Leske’s prone body in confusion. “What the blazes is wrong with him?”

“Looks like the… plague, if you ask me,” Darvis says wildly. “Horribly contagious in the final stages, you know. We’re all in danger being in the same room as him!”

The guard pales, and he looks nervously around the room. “Aw, shit. I don’t get paid enough to be stuck down here with the plague.” He hovers hesitantly by the door, weighing his options. In the end, it seems the threat of Leske’s mysterious sickness is enough to counteract his orders.

“I’m going to find Beraht! This better not be a trick!”

The dungeon door slams shut behind him, and Leske immediately pops up with a chuckle. “Where does Beraht find the idiots that work here?”

“I hope you realize that when you talk about idiots that work for Beraht, that includes us.”

“Hey, I never claimed either of us a genius. And we won’t be alive to argue about it if we don’t get out of here soon. How’s that lock looking?”

“Easy enough.” The bars of Darvis’s door are just wide enough to fit his arm through, and with a bit of twisting he can reach the lock. His weapons have been taken, of course, but over the years Darvis has learned to carry countless pins stored in his pockets and belts. He’s even braided some of Rica’s old hair pins into his beard.

I wonder if Rica knows where I am right now, he thinks. He doesn’t like the mental image of Rica home on her own, wondering what’s happened to him. Even worse is the thought that Beraht has already had his cronies find her and bring her here, where she’ll be deemed a traitor by association.

I can’t let these bastards hurt her.

Darvis dismantles the lock with more ferocity than tact, and it soon lies in pieces on the floor. Leske’s lock is next, and just like that the two dwarves are free- or as free as they can be while still in the Carta dungeons. Leske immediately heads for an old chest on the edge of the room, digging through until he finds their confiscated armor and weapons. He pulls the daggers out, turning them over thoughtfully in his hands.

“You know how this is going to end, right?” Leske says, gaze flickering between Darvis and the daggers. “At this point, either Beraht is finally going to kill you, or…”

“Or I kill him.” Darvis can’t count how many times he’s made that threat before. Never to Beraht’s face, of course, but the thought is constantly in his mind. Even so, it's always been just a threat. Beraht has the power of the Carta behind him- some duster thief like Darvis couldn't take him down.

But then, some Duster thief couldn’t win the Provings, either.

Darvis reaches out for the dagger. “Are you ready to do something incredibly stupid?”

A sharp grin appears on Leske’s face. “Always.”

 

The tunnels that make up the Carta headquarters are long and winding, but Leske and Darvis know the way. They move quickly and quietly, making short work of any unfortunate guards that they encounter. Darvis is on high alert for Beraht, but they make it nearly all the way to the exit without finding any sign of him.

And then, at last, they hear a familiar voice through the walls. Darvis moves quietly to stand against the door, Leske acting as his shadow. They’re so close- if they can make it through these last couple of rooms, they’ll be out of the Carta’s clutches. But it won’t last, not while Beraht lives. They need to take care of him now. Darvis edges the door open, and gets a peek of Beraht standing around a table with two of his henchmen.

“Yes, I’m sure!” Beraht’s irritated voice fills the room. “She’s been singing the same song about having a patron for weeks. I’m sick of it. After what her brother pulled, I’m done with this entire family. They’re cut off.”

One of the henchmen grins. “I’ll be happy to deliver that news. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on that girl for too long.”

That’s it, Darvis thinks. They all die. Before he loses his nerve, Darvis bursts into the room, daggers at the ready. The men inside jump up in alarm, but not quickly enough. Darvis catches the first henchman by surprise, and his dagger slides easily across the man’s throat. “You’re not going to lay a finger on my sister!”

Beraht has pulled his own weapon now. “What is that doing out of its cage? Can’t anybody here do their fucking job?”

“Speaking of jobs,” Darvis says, “I’d like to officially quit.” He darts forward to Beraht, daggers out, and manages to catch his former boss in the arm. A pained hiss escapes from Beraht’s lips, and he retaliates by driving a knee into Darvis’s stomach and bringing him to the ground.

From somewhere behind him, Darvis can hear Leske scuffling with the other henchman. He doesn’t have much time to focus on that, however, as Beraht launches his foot into Darvis’s stomach. It drives the breath from him, and he barely sees the knife following in time to dodge out of the way.

Blindly, he strikes out with his fists, making contact and sending Beraht back a few feet. Jumping up, Darvis once again leaps forward, daggers in hand, and manages to land another hit, this time leaving a long, bloody scar on Beraht’s face. Beraht screams and raises a hand to the wound, and it’s all the distraction Darvis needs to bring the dagger down one final time.

The ruckus behind him fades, and Leske approaches only to stop in his tracks. “Holy sodding shit.”

Now that the adrenaline is leaving his system, Darvis can’t quite believe what just happened. He's finally done it. He's killed Beraht, the leader of the Carta, the man who’s spent the last decade terrorizing his family.

“That was amazing!” Leske is out of breath and clutching a wound in his side, but he’s also laughing, and he claps a hand on Darvis’s shoulder. “You just charged right in here and killed him! Beraht’s dead and we’re alive! We’re the luckiest fucking dusters in Orzammar!”

“For once, I think you’re right,” Darvis replies, letting out a shaky laugh of his own. He glances nervously around the room. “But we should probably leave before our luck runs out.”

“Good point,” Leske mutters, his elation fading a bit. “We need to figure out a good place to hide. There are still a lot of people who want to kill you.”

“Yeah, I think I’m getting used to that. But we need to find Rica first.”

“Of course we do,” Leske sighs. “Hey, when we see Rica, could you tell her that I was the one who killed Beraht? That’d impress her, don’t you think?”

Darvis shoots him a warning look. “I’m still holding a weapon, you know.”

“Never mind, then.” Leske follows Darvis to the door. “Just remember, we need to keep a low profile.”

The street is clear when they leave- for about thirty seconds. Almost immediately, people begin shouting. Darvis looks in the direction of the noise, and to his horror sees a patrol of city guards, one of them pointing straight at him. Darvis kicks himself- he’s probably the most wanted criminal in Orzamaar right now. Of course he’d be spotted right away.

The two rogues begin to run, but it’s too late. Within seconds they're surrounded by angry guardsmen, all wielding swords that are currently being pointed right at Darvis and Leske.

Chapter Text

Marja isn’t surprised by the news Bhelen gives her, and that might be the worst part.

It doesn’t take Bhelen long to explain the situation. “He’s decided you’re a threat to his claim to the throne,” he says hurriedly, casting a furtive glance at the door. “And to be completely honest, he’s probably right. Compared to you, he’s not… personable. And with the mission tomorrow…”

“A success will make me more of a threat,” Marja finishes, fists clenching at her sides. Hadn’t she just been telling Gorim what the mission means for her future? She should have known Trian would have the same thoughts. And he’s hated her for a long time.

“And you know his pride would never allow him to step down.” Bhelen eyes his sister with concern, waiting for her reaction, but she remains quiet.

Yes, Trian’s hated her for a long time. And assassination among the nobles is as ancient and respected as any other Orzammar tradition. That Trian wants her dead is no surprise, but suspicion and confirmation are vastly different. An icy fury threatens to sweep over her, but she bites down on her tongue and forces herself to take a calming breath. Anger leads to idiocy, and she can’t afford that right now.

“You say he’s finally making his move. Do you have any details?”

Bhelen scoffs. “He doesn’t trust me. I was lucky to hear what I did. But the way things are going, he’ll be acting fast. If you want to fight back, you’ll need to act faster.”

“Gorim?” Her voice comes out harsh, and she takes another steadying breath before continuing. “What do you think about all of this?”

He hesitates, eyes flickering towards Bhelen. “May I speak freely, my lady?”

“Of course.”

“Trian has friends in the Assembly, but not enough to become king. Even those who support his policies know he would make a terrible leader. But he has enough power to make things very ugly for you. To kill him now would save a lot of bloodshed later.” His voice is low and solemn. He meets Marja’s eyes with a steady gaze as he speaks, and she knows he truly believes this.

The strategist in Marja knows he’s right. Trian will only ever be against her, and taking him out while she has the advantage is the practical thing to do. The smart thing. Furthermore, it's only a matter of self-defense. There's no reason for a sick sliver of guilt to curl in her stomach underneath the initial anger.

But succession is a tricky matter. Acting too rashly may land her in trouble far worse than whatever Trian has in mind.

“I want more information,” Marja says decisively. “I’d prefer to know what Trian’s next move is before we go charging out with our swords drawn.” Gorim’s brow furrows in worry, and Marja gives him a reassuring smile. “I’m not afraid of Trian. Whatever he does, you know he’s no match for me.”

 

Despite her confidence, Marja can’t help the wariness that gnaws on her nerves the next day in the Deep Roads. She moves cautiously through the tunnels, her greatsword in hand and her eyes on the two newcomers put under her command. She’s never worked with these men before, but her father assigned them to her and she can hardly argue with the king.

Marja doesn’t like surprises, whether good or bad. And the new soldiers are nothing compared to the surprise mission her father sprung on her. It should be a good thing- her father is entrusting her with the retrieval of an ancestor’s shield, an ancient artifact from the ruins that possesses extreme importance to the Aeducans. But in light of recent discoveries, Marja can’t help but suspect that her brother had something to do with the unexpected mission that keeps her and Gorim separated from the rest of the group.

In spite of Marja’s misgivings, everything seems to be moving according to plan- until they locate the shield. After a good deal of searching and shuffling about in the dusty stone corridor, she manages to unearth the prize they were sent after only to be greeted at the cavern exit by looters.

Looters. Somehow that stings more than the fact that Trian is trying to kill her in the first place- he thinks that can be accomplished by sending common, grave-robbing looters after her? She almost feels sorry for the poor, outmatched fools. Almost.

Marja dodges out of the path of a swinging sword, bringing her own sword around in a wide arc that sends the man before her flying. He’s thrown against the cave wall with an echoing thud, and doesn’t stir again. Nearby, Gorim sends a sword through the armor of another would-be attacker. He glances at Marja with a laugh. “I haven’t even broken a sweat!”

The entire battle is over within minutes. With relief, Marja notes that her new companions have held nothing back. All this time, she's been imagining some great conspiracy from Trian, but it’s possible his assassination attempt is as simple as an ambush in an isolated tunnel.

Gorim confirms her suspicions. “My Lady, look.” He’s  standing over the body of one of the attackers, and as he motions forward Marja sees what has caught his attention. There, on the dead man’s hand, is a royal signet ring.

“I can only think of one place he would have gotten that,” Marja mutters, prying the ring loose. It’s a small thing, but it feels heavy in her hand. The moment is bittersweet; she now holds in her hand tangible proof that her brother has tried to end her life.

And she has everything she needs. Marja pockets the ring and checks that the old shield is still strapped to her back. All of the pieces are in place- now, it’s time to act.

Marja leads her men through the tunnels quickly, mind racing as she plots out the conversation she’ll have with her father when the time is right. Trian will be taken by the guard, possibly exiled to the surface. That’s the proper punishment for this kind of treason. However prudent it may be to simply eliminate him, Marja can’t help but feel a small gleam of relief at not having to go that far.

That relief is shattered when she reaches the rendezvous point and turns a corner to find Trian laying facedown on the stone floor, a pool of blood congealing beneath him.

A small, choked noise escapes her lips and before she fully realizes what’s happening she’s kneeling beside him, checking desperately for breath or a pulse. But there’s nothing.

“By the Stone…” Gorim’s voice manages to break through her haze. He’s staring at the body, aghast. “What’s happened?”

More shocked voices ring out, and Marja dimly realizes that more people are pouring into the tunnel. She rises to her feet and staggers backwards from the body, just as her father comes into view.

No!” The word comes out in a horrified gasp. He races to Trian, taking in the sight with wide, stricken eyes. After a moment of stunned silence, his gaze turns to Marja. His expression shifts from disbelief to outrage. Bhelen stands behind him, and as Marja locks eyes with her younger brother, everything slides into place.

You,” she whispers, but he makes no acknowledgement. His eyes leave hers and drift to the body of their brother on the floor. Nausea and guilt and anger hit Marja all at once, and without fully realizing what she’s doing, she’s moving towards Bhelen. For once she has no plan, no thought-out words. All of that has crumbled to dust around her, and all that’s left is the knowledge that Bhelen is a traitor.

But as Marja moves forward it is her father who intercepts her, with burning eyes and a voice ragged with grief. “Tell me this isn’t what it looks like!”

“I’m sorry, Father,” Bhelen says, his voice of low and full of sorrow. “It seems I was right. We were too late.”

He lays a comforting hand on his father’s shoulder, and something about that gesture is what finally makes Marja snap. She lunges forward with a growl, only to find herself immediately caught in the grip of her father’s guards. She pulls against them but is vastly outnumbered; escape is not an option here, she realizes with a chill.

Marja tries to regain herself, but when she speaks her voice shakes with barely contained rage. “I did not do this!”

“My lady is innocent!” Gorim yells, but King Endrin shakes his head.

“I have no interest in your testimony, Ser Gorim. I know where your loyalty lies.” His gaze moves to the other men, who have so far remained silent. “There were others present. What do they say?”

Marja twists to look at them, but neither man meets her eyes, and she knows what they’re going to say before they speak. “Lady Aeducan approached her brother with a greeting, and attacked him when his guard was down,” the first says.

“We had no time to act,” the other adds. “She threatened us, told us to keep our silence. She was in the midst of disposing of the body when your group arrived earlier than expected, but she had time to strip him of his valuables.”

The ring. Marja’s stomach drops. Trian’s signet ring is still secure in her bag, sure to be found as soon as she is searched. How could she have been so blind?

Gorim is screaming now, shouting insults at the witnesses, until he, too, is restrained by the other warriors. From the position in which she is held, Marja can’t see the entirety of the scuffle, but in the din of fighting and shouting she hears the crack of bones.

“Gorim!” Marja twists and lunges and very nearly breaks free. “Leave him, please! He didn’t do anything. Neither of us did anything!”  

Endrin is silent as he watches his daughter struggle. He hesitates, pain clear in his eyes, and for a brief, beautiful moment Marja believes that he will trust her. But at the end of his prolonged silence he only looks away, his face shedding the concern and grief of a father and slipping into the well-practiced, cold expression of a king. “The princess will be judged before the assembly. Bind her and escort her to the dungeons.”

Marja protests and pulls away, but it does no good. She manages one last look at Bhelen, and he gives her a small, smug nod as she is dragged away.

 

I’m going to kill him.

I’m going to kill him.

I’m going to kill him.

The thought is the only thing keeping Marja sane as she stews in the dungeons. She had been dragged here like some common criminal, tossed into a cell without a word from the guards- the guards that are supposed to obey her orders.

Bhelen has outplayed her. Bhelen has outplayed her.

Marja growls and kicks against the bars of her cell. The tinny sound of iron reverberates through the dungeon, and it makes Marja want to scream. She doesn’t belong here, and she knows that if she can only get a chance to speak to the Assembly, she can convince them.

And then I’m going to murder him.

The thought flashes through her mind with an image of Trian, facedown on the stone, and Marja’s stomach heaves violently. She grits her teeth and swallows a scream. This isn’t how any of this was supposed to happen.

But if she can just get to the Assembly- to her father- she can salvage something out of this.

The noise of footsteps catches her attention, and she nearly cries in relief at the sight of Gorim approaching her cell. He moves quickly, mouth tight, and the relief is offset by the knowledge that he must be delivering bad news.

Nevertheless, Marja is glad to see him. “Gorim, please tell me what’s happening out there.”

He opens his mouth to answer, then hesitates, as if searching for the words. Frustrated, Marja slams her palm against the iron bars. “Gorim! What is the Assembly saying? When can I speak with them?”

Gorim’s face is somber when he finally answers. “You can’t. They’re not calling for your testimony.” Marja’s cell suddenly seems a lot smaller, and it’s hard for her to focus as Gorim continues to speak. “With Trian dead, Bhelen has taken his place in the Assembly. He introduced a motion to condemn you immediately, and…” Gorim trails off, shaking his head. His hands clench into fists, and when he continues his voice shakes with anger.

“And it passed! He had half the Assembly willing to vote on something completely against tradition and justice! He must have been making deals and alliances for months, if not years.”

“And I missed it all,” Marja says numbly. She has always been so focused on Trian- the brother who hated her, who wanted her gone. He was the tyrant to Marja’s defiance, while Bhelen was always playing the peacekeeper. How many lies has her younger brother woven, all the while planning this?

I’m going to kill him,” she growls, fingers curling around the iron bars.

“I don’t think you’ll get that chance. The Assembly has decided on your sentence.” Gorim pauses. “And mine, as well.”

Another spike of guilt courses through Marja This whole time she’s been so concerned about herself, she hasn’t even fully realized that as her second, Gorim’s life is just as destroyed as hers. “What will happen to you?”

Gorim gives her a shaky smile. “They’re not killing me, so… there’s that, at least. But my status will be stripped, my name torn from my family records. They’re sending me to the surface. The guards were… kind enough to let me come here first, but by tomorrow I’ll be in exile.” The smile fades. “Lord Harrowmont moved to do the same for you, but Bhelen’s supporters overwhelmed him.”

Marja swallows and nods. Her failure means the end of Gorim’s legacy in Orzammar, but not his life. He deserves so much more than this- in Marja’s opinion, his loyalty far surpasses Paragon status. But her opinion matters little at the moment. “And what did Bhelen’s supports decide for me?”

Gorim is silent for several long moments. When he finally answers, he does so in quick, tight voice. “You’re to be taken to the Deep Roads to fight darkspawn until you are overwhelmed and killed.”

Marja takes in this information in silence, although her knuckles are deathly white as her grip on the iron bars tightens. “My father allowed this?”

“He was not involved. He’s taken ill, according to Lord Harrowmont. Supposedly, the loss of two children at once has taken a toll on his health.”

He’s not losing me, Marja thinks, he’s throwing me away. Anger sears through her veins- at her father, at the nobles, at Trian, and more than anyone at Bhelen, her cowardly, conniving, lying brother. I’m going to kill him.

Gorim reaches through the bars, grabbing Marja’s arms and distracting her from her thoughts. “Lord Harrowmont sent me here to do more than just say goodbye. He believes you. And he wants you to know that the Grey Wardens are in the Deep Roads. If you can find them… they accept anyone into their ranks. It’s your only chance of escape.”

Grey Wardens. The surfacers who spend their lives as darkspawn-fighting vagabonds. The hope is a hollow one. But it is a hope all the same. “One chance is all I need.”

A shout rings out from down the dungeon hallway, and Marja knows that their time is drawing to a close. She reaches through the cell bars and grips Gorim’s hand tightly in hers, all the thousands of things she needs to tell him fighting to get out. “Thank you for coming here. And thank you for everything else. I could never have asked for a better second, or a better friend. And… I’m sorry.”

Gorim squeezes her hand. “May the Paragon guide your sword and the Stone hold you up. No matter what happens, my Lady, I was honored to have served you.”

They stay like that for a moment, hands joined between the bars of the cell, and then Gorim disappears down the hallway and Marja is left alone with her thoughts. Her plans have all been dashed, and for the first time in her life, she isn’t sure what she is supposed to do. All she knows is that she will find the Wardens. She has to. She will survive. And someday, somehow, she will make her brother pay for what he’s done.

Chapter Text

“Now would the perfect time for one of your brilliant ideas,” Leske mutters as he positions himself back to back against Darvis.

Darvis's eyes sweep across the crowd of guards before him. The odds aren’t good. In fact, Darvis might say they’re pretty fucking bad. He and Leske are cornered and outnumbered, and all Darvis can think is that of course he would finally kill Beraht only to be taken down by the damned palace guards.

“Drop your weapons!” The order is shouted gruffly by a man who wears the uniform of a guard captain. He glares at Darvis and Leske through narrowed eyes. “You’ve nowhere to run. Come quietly before we resort to dragging you to the palace by force.”

“I have a hunch force will be involved either way,” Darvis responds. His grip on his dagger tightens. “I think we’ll take our chances.”

The captain gives a scowls and starts forward, his own weapon drawn, but his approach is interrupted as a tall dark-skinned man- a human- pushes his way through the crowd. His presence is easily noticed among the crowd of dwarves, and from the looks of panicked reverence he earns from the guards, Darvis can tell he carries a weighty authority. There’s only one kind of human that can elicit that kind of respect from the Warrior Caste: A Grey Warden.

“One moment, my friend.” He speak in a solemn tone- unhurried, but authoritative, and the captain steps back.

The Warden regards Darvis and Leske with an inscrutable expression. “You had suggested that the criminal known as Beraht was the mastermind behind this trouble. I take it neither of these men are him?”

“No, but they’re his lackeys.” The disdain in the captain’s voice is obvious. “They’ve broken countless laws on his behalf.”

“You should be thanking us,” Darvis snaps. “Beraht’s not going to be causing anybody trouble anymore.”

For the first time, the captain is caught off guard. He blinks at Darvis in disbelief. “You incapacitated Beraht?”

“If by that you mean I made him dead, then yes.”

“One of the worst criminals Orzammar has ever known!” Leske adds quickly. “And Brosca here put an end to him for good!”

The statement causes a surge of murmuring in the crowd that has gathered around them, and Darvis can’t help but notice the interest with which the Warden is now eyeing him. But the captain doesn’t look appeased. “It doesn’t matter! You are still guilty of numerous crimes, including impersonating a higher caste! And the penalty is death!”

The Warden holds up a hand to quiet the guard. “I have another suggestion.” He turns his attention to Darvis, who immediately feels the hair on the back of his neck prickle under the weight of this man’s stare. “I’m afraid we have not been properly introduced. My name is Duncan, of the Grey Wardens. I have come to Orzammar searching for those with the potential to join in the fight against the Blight. I believe that you fit that description.”

Darvis can only stare back at him in bafflement. “Wait, what?”

Duncan smiles, somehow amused, and says, “Let me make the offer formal. I am officially extending the invitation for you to journey with me to the surface and become a Grey Warden.”

“This brand is wanted for treason!” The captain is openly outraged now, and he turns on Duncan in fury. “You cannot do this!”

Duncan remains stoic and unimpressed. “I can, and I am. The Rite of Conscription says the Wardens may take on whomever we deem worthy. If you disagree, I suggest you discuss this with your king.” The guard captain grits his teeth but, after a long moment, deflates. Reluctantly, he motions for the guards behind him to stand down as well.

And just like that, Darvis goes from being surrounded by drawn swords to being face to face with a Warden who has offered to take him away. Duncan looks at him expectantly. “This is not an offer I make lightly. It will mean leaving your people and traveling to the surface, but it is a necessary duty. One that comes with great honor.” Behind him, the guard captain makes a face and spits harshly on the ground.

Darvis is still busy trying to process his words. The adrenaline that has been surging through his blood has begun to fade, but uneasiness still pricks at his skin. This is too easy. It’s a mistake, it’s a trap, something is going to go wrong. The thoughts chase themselves around his head, all echoing a simple truth- you don’t get to just walk out of Dust Town.

And yet, it’s happening. “You’re serious?” Darvis says cautiously. “You’ll make me a Warden, just like that?”

“It’s not quite so easy as it sounds,” Duncan replies. “There is great danger involved. But I must say, it does seem to be the best option available to you.”

Darvis glances at Leske, who looks just as shocked as he is. “I… I think I need a moment.”

“Very well.” Duncan turns to address the captain. “I can handle this from here. You may want to report these events back to your king.” The captain shoots one last, dark look at Darvis, but turns to wave the crowd away and bark orders at his guards.

Leske takes advantage of the distraction. He pulls Darvis to the side and punches his shoulder, disbelief plain on his face. “Did Beraht crack your skull in that fight? This guy wants to make you a Warden! Why aren’t you already jumping into his arms?!”

Darvis knocks him away. He wants to come up with a witty retort, but the words die in his throat. Instead, he looks at Leske and asks, “Should I?”

Leske gives him an incredulous look and tries to punch him in the arm again. Darvis dodges and continues quickly, “What about Rica? What about you?”

“Listen to me,” Leske says, his face growing serious. “You stay here, you’re dead. That’s the short of it. You don’t get caught fucking around with the Provings and live. And don’t forget what you just did to Beraht! It may have been the best thing I’ve ever seen, but Jarvia is going to be furious. That’s the Carta and the palace both out for your blood. You really think you can take on this entire city at once?”

Darvis heaves a sigh, rubbing his head. He knows he’s dead if he stays here. He knows this offer is too good to pass up. And he knows there’s a part of him that’s ready to go now, to run up to the surface and never step foot in Orzammar again.

But there’s another part of him, no matter how irrational, that screams he needs to be here for his sister. Leske watches as the conflicting emotions race across Darvis’s face, and finally sighs. “I know you’re worried. But you’re no use to Rica- or to me- as a corpse.”

The words are painful, but true. “Okay. Just…watch out for her. Please.”

Leske grins, although there’s a hint of sadness behind the usual mischief in his eyes. “Don’t I always?”

“Seriously. Or else I’m coming back here with an army.”

“Sure you are, duster. Or shall I say, Warden.” Leske does an exaggerated mock bow, and pushes Darvis towards Duncan. “Now get going before this guy wises up and changes his mind. And… take care of yourself up there. Never know what weird shit you’re gonna see on the surface.”

Darvis nods, swallowing down the strange pain in his chest. If he is truly going to the surface, the odds are that he won’t be seeing Leske again. But at least they’ll both be alive. “Same to you.”

“Hey, you know me. I’m pretty good at laying low.” Leske gives Darvis one last smirk, then slinks out into the streets, eventually disappearing into the shadows of an alleyway. Darvis watches until he vanishes from sight. When he’s finally gone, Darvis turns back to Duncan.

“I guess I’m coming with you.”

Duncan nods, casting a look behind him at the few lingering guards. “We need to be on our way, then. The other Wardens I traveled here with are still on a mission into the Deep Roads, but we may be wise to wait for them on the surface.”

“Wait,” Darvis cuts in, panicked, “I need to go home first. I need to speak to my sister.”

Duncan shakes his head. “We can arrange for a message to be sent, but we should not delay our departure. The Rite of Conscription is not always respected as it should be. It’s best we make ourselves scarce before tensions rise more than they already have.”

The thought of leaving without saying goodbye to Rica hits Darvis like a punch to the gut, but he notices the way the remaining guards are eying him. He doesn’t doubt that if he tries to return home, he'll be followed- and perhaps fall victim to an ‘accident’ in the shadows of Dust Town. With much reluctance, he follows in Duncan’s trail.

They’ve almost reached the Orzammar gate when Darvis hears his name being called out. He turns with alarm at first, but his heart leaps when he sees Rica dashing through the street. She crashes through the crowd, long skirts hitched above her knees and face red with exertion, paying no heed to the dirty looks her presence elicits. Before Darvis can say anything, she’s throwing her arms around him and gripping him in a tight hug.

“Leske… told me… what happened,” she pants, trying to catch her breath. “I ran as fast as I could. I had to say goodbye.”

Darvis hugs her back fiercely, screwing his eyes shut so that when he pulls away Rica doesn’t see any moisture in them. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I hate to leave you here-”

“Don’t!” Rica’s eyes are wet, but her expression glows. “”You have to go! I always knew you’d get your chance, and this is it. You’ll finally get to show the world how great you are- the equal of any noble.”

“I’ll stay alive, at any rate,” Darvis allows. “You keep yourself safe, okay?”

Rica wipes at her eyes and laughs. “Don’t you worry about me. I’ll be okay.” She smiles shyly, and self-consciously tucks a wild strand of hair behind her ear. “I… have my patron. It’s real. I spent the whole day with him, and if everything works out, I will be more than taken care of. He’s already promised to move us to a better house. If I can bear him a son, things will only get better.”

Relief and concern flood over Darvis in equal measures. Rica will be okay. If this patron is everything she says he is, she will have every comfort she deserves. But it still feels wrong to leave her here, to leave her fate in the hands of some noble he has never met. Still, he manages to fight back the uncertainty and give Rica a smile. “And you’re happy with him?”

“I am.” Her expression grows determined, and despite the worry that Darvis can't quite manage to chase away, he recognizes the strength in his sister. The Brosca's are a tough family. It's the only reason they've made it this far. Rica knows this just as much as Darvis does. “I can take care of myself, and of mother. And you can go make a name on the surface. You’re better than you realize. Remember that.”

She gives Darvis one last, quick squeeze, before granting Duncan a slightly embarrassed bow and retreating back towards Dust Town. Darvis resists the urge to run after her. She can take care of herself, he assures himself qiuetly. He only wishes she didn’t have to.

At last, Darvis turns back to Duncan, who has been waiting patiently a few feet away. “Um. Shall we continue?”

They do continue, moving through the large hall lined with the towering statues of Paragons. Darvis smirks at them as he passes through. If the tales are correct, he’s going somewhere the ancestors can’t follow, and that suits him just fine.

As the tall gates open to the side of the mountain, Darvis feels uncharacteristically hopeful.

 


 

 

Marja would trade all the gold in the Orzammar treasury for a fitted suit of armor and a balanced greatsword. To send her to the Deep Roads to die is bad enough. To send her to the Deep Roads to die in nothing but her prison clothes just seems an unnecessary cruelty.

The entire process feels horribly un-ceremonial to Marja. She is an Aeducan- if they must kill her, they could at least do it with some respect. But she had been dragged from her cell just as rudely as she had been dragged into it, and only Harrowmont and a handful of guards were there to witness her exile to the Deep Roads.

A smart move on Bhelen’s part, Marja has to admit. She can’t imagine what he said to their father to convince him not to speak to her, but of course she knows now just how cunning Bhelen can be when necessary. And Marja knows, just as Bhelen surely knows, that if she could have seen her father just once more she could have avoided such a harsh sentence. Instead, all of Marja’s practiced speeches have been rendered irrelevant.

Harrowmont had tried to offer her kindness as she left. Just words, of course- Harrowmont has always been a shrewd man at heart, not keen on placing bets that aren’t in his favor. But it's because of him that Marja has any chance at all, so she had held her temper and allowed him to assuage his own conscience through meaningless sentiment.

She'd at least been lucky enough to stumble across the body of a would-be adventurer- probably a foolish relic-hunter hoping to find some ruins to loot. It seems he had found a nest of darkspawn instead, but his loss is Marja’s gain. His armor is tight and his sword has rusted over, but it’s better than nothing.

That’s what Marja keeps reminding herself as she carves her way through the tunnels. Ill-fitting armor and a rusty sword is better than nothing. Being sent to the Deep Roads is better than being executed. Knowing that the Wardens are somewhere in this tunnel is better than being faced with certain death.

Still, she wishes she had her greatsword, especially when her unfamiliar, unbalanced sword swings wide and misses the head of the genlock she’s fighting.

The genlock hisses and lunges, and Marja grits her teeth in irritation as she dives to the ground to dodge. She throws herself against the creature, using her weight to shove it to the ground. At this close a distance, even the unfamiliar weight of the longsword can’t cause her to miss.

Once she’s finished the genlock off, she hurries down the tunnel before the noise can attract any more. As she moves, she hastily checks herself for open wounds. If she allows herself to become contaminated with darkspawn blood, she won’t live long enough to find the Wardens. She fears she may have missed them already; time is hard to gauge in the endless paths of the Deep Roads. The pains in her stomach tell her it’s been too long since she’s eaten, but this alone is not much help; all she had while stuck in the cells were a few pieces of crust.

It can’t have been too long. It simply can’t. Telling herself that the Wardens are here, just around the next curve, just through the next tunnel, Marja keeps herself moving. She’s exhausted, and her feet protest with every step in her unarmored, ill-fitting boots, but she can’t stop.

When she first begins to see signs of non-darkspawn travelers, renewed determination invigorates her. After hours of following footprints that she hopes aren’t hurlock, she at last hears voices echo from the road ahead.

“Hello?” she calls out, throwing any sense of caution to the wind. She is not taking the chance of losing these people in the winding tunnels. “Wardens?”

The torches that come into view are the most beautiful sight Marja has ever seen. Her knees wobble with relief as the Wardens come into view, but she somehow finds the strength to remain standing.

The Wardens approach, shock obvious on their faces.  In the back of her mind, Marja can’t help but shudder at the sight she must be. Obviously stolen armor, filthy from the dungeons, hair streaked with dirt and blood. They probably don’t even recognize her as royalty. Still, she offers them a smile, trying to invoke the same charm she once used on Assembly members. “Grey Wardens, I presume? I hear you’re looking for recruits.”

After that, things happen in a blur. Marja answers the many, many questions put forth by the Wardens, doing her best to remain diplomatic and elusive. The Wardens may take criminals and murderers, but she still doesn’t want to give them any doubts regarding her trustworthiness. She tells an abridged version of her story, and when pressed for details she finally allows herself to stumble in exhaustion.

“May we continue this conversation elsewhere?” she asks, and thanks the Ancestors when the Wardens begin to usher her back to their camp on the surface.

 

Despite the exhaustion in her bones, Marja’s mind is working at top speed- until she sees the stars.

They stop her in her tracks, and for a long time all she can do is stare. She’s heard about such things before, of course. The “stars”, the “sky”. Words don’t do any of it justice. The gaping expanse of dark blue stretches out above her, more distant than any cavern ceiling could ever be and filled with innumerable pinpricks of golden light. Marja understands now why there are legends about falling upwards.

A voice breaks her from her reverie. She and the other Wardens are at the exit of a tunnel, a side passage that thankfully bypasses the city and lets out near their camp. The Wardens hurry to find Duncan, whom Marja gathers is their leader and the man who now approaches her.

“Lady Aeducan,” he greets her, and Marja works to keep her expression steady even as the title strikes her heart.

“Just Marja now, I suppose,” she corrects lightly. A bitter taste is left in her mouth, but she bites her tongue and continues. “There has been a shift in the political structure of Orzammar over the past few days.”

“So I’ve heard,” Duncan muses. He studies her with a look Marja knows all too well- the look of somebody weighing their options. “I will not ask about the accuracy of the rumors that pass through the city. Wardens have no place in politics, and anything you may have done will be left behind. If you join, that is.”

“And I do wish to join,” Marja says, perhaps a bit too eagerly. But what else can she do? Everything in this world is strange to her, and she predicts that most of it will not be as harmless as the stars. Left alone, she will die on this mountain just as surely as she would have died in the Deep Roads. And she knows that the Wardens are in no position to turn down recruits. “A Blight is coming, isn’t it?”

“I believe so. We need Wardens, and you would make an excellent one. That you survived on your own in the Deep Roads proves that.” He pauses, and Marja frowns at the hesitation. “But first, I should warn you of something.”

“If it is the danger, I assure you-”

“No. It is the rules of the order. The rules that you, as a Grey Warden, will be required to follow. You must understand that the Grey Wardens leave their old lives behind completely. And we take no part in political matters. Once you become a Warden, that is all you may ever be.”

Ah. Marja looks away, her mind spinning. She feels as if Duncan can peer into her very thoughts, although perhaps it would be easy for anyone to draw certain conclusions after the upheaval Orzammar has just witnessed. “Are you afraid I’m going to come marching back here with an army to usurp my brother?”

“Is that what you want?”

Yes.

 “No.” Marja meets Duncan’s gaze, her chin set. “The whole city believes me a murderer. They exiled me. There is nothing left for me here.”

She can’t tell if Duncan completely believes her, and she can’t help but feel a grudging respect for this human. It’s clear that he takes these rules seriously. A pity- unreadable as he is, he would make a talented politician.

“Very well,” he says at last. “I admit, I am glad to have two new recruits from Orzammar.”

A flutter of hope rushes through Marja. “Two? You saved someone else? Is Gorim here?” Perhaps he has managed to find the Wardens, perhaps he waited for her, perhaps her only ally has not disappeared-

“Gorim?” Duncan frowns, the name obviously unfamiliar to him, and Marja’s hopes are dashed. She looks down, doing her best to contain her disappointment.

“I suppose not, then. Is there another disgraced noble I haven’t heard about?”

“Not exactly. But there will be time for introductions on our way to Ostagar,” Duncan says. “For now, get some rest. We begin travel at dawn, and it is a long journey down the mountain.” He turns to leave, and Marja reaches out uncertainly to stop him.

“Apologies, but… what is ‘dawn’?”

A good-natured smile flits across Duncan’s face as he answers. “Just get some sleep for now. We’ll be moving in a few hours.”

Marja nods and watches Duncan depart, but it is a long time before she seeks out a tent of her own. Instead, she sits and stares up at the stars.

How many of her ancestors have seen such things? Not many, she believes. Self-respecting, noble-born dwarves don’t visit the surface. Trian certainly would have died before letting himself be brought up to the surface world to look into the sky. Which, Marja numbly supposes, is exactly what happened.

But she’s alive. Everything else may be ashes around her- one brother dead, another turned traitor, and a father who thinks her a liar and a murderer- but she is alive. And even if she joins the Wardens and the Shapers purge her name from all records, she is an Aeducan still.

And when she is ready, when Bhelen has grown complacent in the belief that he is safe, she will return to this city and show her brother what it looks like when an Aeducan wages war.

Chapter Text

The surface, as it turns out, is really fucking weird.

There’s so much about it that’s just not natural. The sky, for instance. Darvis doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to look up without immediately feeling nauseous. It’s all too much- the distance and openness and blue-ness. Looking at it too long causes shivers to run down his neck. Not to mention that apparently things will just… fall out of it from time to time. Things like snow, or rain, or hail. It's impressive at first, but Darvis's appreciation of the novelty fades quickly as he realizes it all just means he's going to be cold and wet for the foreseeable future.

He wonders what Leske would have to say about all of this. Stop with the bellyaching, duster. At least we’re not in that cell, waiting for Beraht and Jarvia to feed us to the nugs. Probably something like that.

The thought helps to lighten the weight of guilt that still sits in Darvis’s stomach. If Leske were here, he’d knock Darvis in the back of the head and call him sun-touched for having doubts about the surface, or for feeling bad about leaving.

And if Leske were here, he’d be laughing himself unconscious over the fact that even on the surface Darvis can’t get away from fucking nobles.

The woman Duncan introduces on the first morning of their travels is unmistakebly a noble. She introduces herself simply- Marja, no family names or rattling off of titles- and is dressed in old cloths and cheap armor, but it makes no difference. Darvis doesn’t need names or titles to know a noble when he sees one. It’s in the way they hold themselves, with a strict, upright posture and a nose in the air. Even on the surface, a person can tell just by looking at them that they’re used to getting their way.

Darvis doesn’t know why this noble woman is here. She probably pissed off somebody important- nobles are fickle lot, and quick to take offense. Whatever it is, it must be severe to send a high-blooded lady running for the surface. The curiosity about her crime sits in the back of Darvis’s mind, but it’s anger and bitterness that wash over him whenever he sees her chatting with Duncan. She’s not supposed to be here- not on the surface, not with the Wardens, not with Darvis.

This is supposed to be a fresh start for him. A way to become more than the mark that’s followed him his entire life. With a noble who knows exactly what that mark means, Darvis doesn’t see how a fresh start is possible anymore.

But time will tell. The Wardens march towards Ostagar now, where from what Darvis gathers some battle will be taking place soon. With luck, the misplaced noble will get herself killed quickly and Darvis won’t have to put up with her any more than he already has. Until then, he plans to avoid her, but that proves difficult. Darvis can feel her studying him as they travel. She does nothing but watch him the first day of the journey. On the second morning of their march, she approaches.

“Our introduction the other day was a bit rushed,” she says with a small smile. She has the accent of the nobility, a precise, haughty tone that immediately sets Darvis’s teeth on edge. “I thought perhaps we should get to know each other a bit more. You are, after all, the only other dwarf around.” She looks at Darvis expectantly, as if their shared dwarfhood should matter at all. As if she doesn’t see the brand on his face.

But Darvis knows better. If their paths had crossed a week ago she would have spit on him sooner than introduce herself.He doesn’t know what she wants now, but he refuses to participate in whatever game this is.

“Our introduction was rushed because I don’t want to talk to you,” he says flatly. The momentary displeasure on her face is immensely satisfying. “And I know you don’t really want to talk to me. What do you want?”

Her lips purse, but she regains her composure quickly. “I simply thought we should take a moment to speak before we reach Ostagar. We are both recruits, are we not? It will be easier to work together as allies if-”

 Darvis interrupts her with a derisive snort. “Allies?” He turns to look her in the eyes, knowing that his brand is prominently displayed. “We may both be Wardens, but we are certainly not allies.”

“I think-”

“You think I have to accommodate your wishes? Not here, I don’t.” The words send a rush of adrenaline through Darvis’s blood. Some remnant of self-preservation is telling him to shut his mouth, but he doesn’t have to. Not here. Darvis may still have a brand on his face, but if Duncan is right it doesn’t mean the same thing it once did.

Marja is silent for a moment. Her well-practiced cordiality is gone now, and she regards him with serious, steely-grey eyes. “I see. You don’t wish to be allies. Very well.  But we don't want to be enemies, do we?”

“Is that a threat?”

“Take it however you wish,” she says with a shrug. “I have no quarrel with you. If you simply wish to stay out of each other’s way, I am content with that.”

“Sounds like a fine fucking idea to me,” Darvis says. After one last look of annoyance in his direction, the woman moves away, off to speak with another Warden. Darvis grins to himself as he watches her go. He could never speak to a noble like this back in Orzammar. Perhaps the surface has some benefits, after all.

 

After days and days of traveling- Darvis thinks they must have walked the entire width of Ferelden- the towering battlements of Ostagar finally appear, looming over the horizon. This, apparently, is where the battle will be taking place. Duncan has spoken little of the upcoming fight. From what Darvis can tell, he’s not the particularly talkative type. But he has said that they will be meeting with more Wardens at Ostagar, and will be cooperating with the king’s troops to push back the darkspawn.

Darvis is more worried about this business with the king than he is about the darkspawn. Kill things? He can do that. But when it comes to thrones and crowns, he would rather keep his head down.

Marja, of course, has the opposite attitude. When at last they reach the gates and are greeted by a group of knights in regal-looking armor, Darvis notices that she has placed herself near the front of the party. Darvis hangs back, just close enough to listen as the groups exchange droning pleasantries.

“And I heard you gathered some new recruits! And from Orzammar, no less!” The human king beams brightly, looking around for any dwarfs. He’s tall, like most humans, and younger-looking than Darvis expects. When the king’s gaze lands on him, Darvis gives only a curt nod.

Marja, however, returns his smile readily. “A pleasure to meet you, Your Majesty. Have you ever visited our lovely city?”

“I have, but far too long ago. How fares King Endrin?”

“My father was quite well, last I saw him.”

A choked noise escapes from Darvis’s throat, and he quickly tries to hide with a cough. Nobody seems to notice- the human king is now fully focused on Marja.

Marja Aeducan.

Darvis doesn’t recognize her- how could he, he’d be killed if he got within fifty feet of the palace, and it’s not like royal parades travel through Dust Town- and the name is just another on a list of important people he doesn’t care about and will never meet. Except he has met her. She’s here, standing with the Wardens and chatting away with the human king as if any of this makes sense.

Darvis isn’t just stuck on the surface with a fucking noble. He’s stuck on the surface with a fucking princess.

He swears that even from here, he can hear Leske laughing at him.

 


 

Marja is becoming acquainted with King Cailan- because she has manners, unlike some people- when Duncan coughs politely and gives a nod. King Cailan hurriedly straightens and gives Marja an apologetic smile. “We must talk more, my friend, after you have all had the chance to rest.”

“That sounds wonderful,” she says, although in the back of her mind she’s scrambling for a story to tell when he begins asking questions. Ever since she learned the king would be at Ostagar, she’s been planning her approach. She needs to make a good impression on this man. Orzammar is isolationist, but they still depend on trade. The support of the Fereldan King could be quite the help when she returns home.

But any support will have to be won. Marja will need a good explanation for why she was exiled. It has occurred to her to share the truth, but that route has its own dangers. If the king doesn't believe her story and decides she's a lying kin-slayer trying to cover up her crimes… well, it just won’t do.

There will be time to worry on that later, however. For now, Marja focuses her attention back on the conversation between the king and Duncan.

“Loghain will want to go over the battle plans before tomorrow,” Cailan is saying to Duncan. His voice grows in excitement. “Truly, Duncan, it is an honor to fight alongside the Wardens. It shall be glorious.”

“As you say, my king,” Duncan says, betraying no emotion. “Now if you will excuse us, there is business among the Wardens that must be attended to.” After successfully extricating the group from the conversation, he gives a tired sigh.

Marja chuckles. She’s known men like this King Cailan before- young, charming, eager for battle. At least half of them are likely to vomit at the first sight of a darkspawn. “He’s certainly… excited.”

“He expects a simple battle. He does not believe this is a true Blight.” There is no humor in Duncan’s voice, and Marja’s smile fades.

“But you do?”

“Yes. The Wardens always know. Speaking of which, there are preparations that must be made. You two-“ he motions at Marja and Darvis, who makes a face at their being included together, “-should find Alistair. He will be assisting in the Joining tonight.”

“Joining?” Darvis’s voice is sharp and suspicious.

“The Joining Ritual, where you will officially become a Grey Warden. I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you at this time. You will need to meet with Alistair and the other recruits.”

“Officially? I thought we were Wardens!” Darvis crosses his arms as he speaks, his fingers running across the blade hilts on his belt with nervous energy. Marja doesn’t want to show it, but Duncan’s words have alarmed her, as well.

“There is more to being a Grey Warden than simply calling yourself one.” Duncan looks out across the camp. “There are more meetings I must attend. I will join you and the other recruits later, and we will discuss what must be done. Until then, speak with Alistair and take what time you have to rest.”

And just like that, Duncan is gone. Marja frowns, wondering what he could have meant-

“So.” Darvis’s voice is directed at Marja now, which takes her by surprise; he made it very clear earlier in the journey that he wanted nothing to do with her.

Perhaps she could have approached him better. The lines of Caste are hard to cross, and Marja has never actually spoken to a Casteless before. They’re simply not seen within the Diamond Quarter, other than the “noble-hunters” some of the nobles- including Bhelen- take to their bedchambers. But now, this Darvis fellow is looking right at her. His face is partially obscured by thick, dark brown hair that falls even longer than Marja’s, but the hostility in his eyes is clear enough. “What the blazes did you do?”

Marja raises an eyebrow in response. “Excuse me?”

“You’re the princess.”

Ah. Marja has been wondering if he recognized her at first. Now she wonders how much of the story he’s heard; he left the city before she did, but news travels fast. Especially scandals. “I was, yes.” He waits for her to elaborate, but she only gives him a small smile.

“So what did you do? The princess doesn’t just decide to join the Wardens.”

So he doesn’t know. Marja wonders if he'll believe her. “My brother…” the words stop in her throat, and she closes her eyes for a moment to steel herself. Getting into the truth, here and now, is a bad idea. Her own father thought her a liar and a murderer; what reason would this man have to think any different? “There was a bit of a familial disagreement. I came out on the losing end. Technically, I’m not a princess anymore.”

Darvis hasn’t stopped eying her with suspicion. “Seems extreme for a… disagreement.”

“Well, I’m sure you know how nobility can be when it comes to honor and such. Things like interfering with Provings, for example, can really get a rise out of people.”

Darvis blinks in surprise, and Marja smirks. She’d suspected, but now she knows. “So that was you, then. I have to say, I’m impressed. If you really did blow away the entire Warrior Caste, it’s no wonder Duncan recruited you.” She’s laying it on a little thick, but a bit of flattery is far from the greatest sacrifice she’s made in the name of diplomacy.

But far from being appeased, Darvis’s eyes narrow. “Your guards didn’t seem very impressed when they came for my head.”

“Yes, guards can be funny like that.” Darvis doesn’t respond, and Marja can’t help but feel out of her depth. When it comes to charming politicians and royalty, Marja is an expert. She’s never had to attempt to get into the good grace of a Casteless man determined to hate her. She decides to make one last attempt. “Look, it’s clear we’re going to be thrown together in this Joining thing. Surely we can try and cooperate. You don’t have to like me. I just want to be able to work together.”

Darvis stares at her for a moment as if she’s lost her mind, then chuckles and shakes his head. He dips low into an exaggerated bow, the tips of his long braided beard nearly brushing the snow-covered ground. “Well, if the high and mighty princess wishes it, I’m sure it’s going to happen.”

Marja’s mouth twitches into a frown, and she reminds herself to take a deep breath. She knows when she’s being made fun of, and she refuses to rise to the bait. “I’m sure it will,” she replies in an even voice, then turns and walks away, head held high even as the anger threatens to burst out of her.

If the world were right, she would be in command of entire troops that respected her. She would be on the cusp of the throne. Instead she’s on her own in a human camp being mocked by a common criminal.

It’s nothing you can’t handle, she reminds herself. You dealt with Trian for years. This can’t be worse than that.

The words are true, but they ring hollow all the same. Even when dealing with Trian, Marja had Gorim by her side. She had- or at least thought she had- Bhelen. But up here, the only person Marja even remotely trusts is Duncan, and even he is inscrutable at the best of times.

But you’re alive. You can handle this.

The mantra eventually calms her, and Marja is able to take in some of her surroundings. The sprawling camp is filled with soldiers of all kinds, and tents have been arranged in small clusters. Marja has no idea where this ‘Alistair’ is, but if he’s another Warden he shouldn’t be too hard to find.

The most vexing thing about Ostagar is that even here, the surface world still has the nerve to be beautiful. Marja can’t help but be in awe of so many things- the sky, the trees, the snow. Oh, the snow. Marja has been entranced by it for days, ever since she first saw the sun rise over the frozen peaks of the Frostback Mountains. Even here, in the midst of the drudgery of a war camp, it covers the trees and tents in a soft, glittering blanket of white.

It’s different from Orzamaar, that much is certain. Just like everything else.

Chapter Text

Find Alistair, Duncan had said, and Marja intends to do just that. But first there are other important matters that must be taken care of.

She studies the rack of weapons laid out before her for a long moment as the human quartermaster looks on impatiently. “You can’t afford that,” he says as she reaches for a fine-looking sword, and Marja purses her lips. The armor she’d worn just last week was worth more than all of this equipment put together. Now she’s being forced to make do with not just human craftsmanship, but shoddy human craftsmanship .

At least she's able to trade in the sword she took from the Deep Roads. She feels a twinge of guilt imagining it in the quartermaster’s hands. She would prefer to return it to Orzammar, to be buried with its owner in a proper funeral. It deserves better than to be pawned off here, so far from the Stone. But there’s nothing to be done about it now.

Marja moves down the weapons rack, waiting for something to catch her eye. There are plenty of swords, but none of the caliber she is accustomed to. She passes over shields (she never liked those anyway, only wore them for ceremonies) and mauls (Trian’s favorite, he always loved having the largest weapon on the field).

At last, she settles on a hefty, double-edged battleaxe. Such a thing isn’t her usual weapon of choice, but her usual way of things hasn’t exactly been serving her well as of late. Besides, the weight of it feels right as she holds it in front of her. “I suppose I’ll take this one, then.”

The quartermaster snorts derisively. “You sure you can handle that? It’s a big weapon for a tiny thing like you.”

Without a word, Marja gives the axe an experimental swing upward. It arcs through the air and back down, and with a twist of her arm Marja brings the weapon to a hovering halt a mere inches from the man’s knees. He yelps and staggers back, and Marja smiles brightly. “Why, yes. I believe I can handle it just fine.”

With her new weapon strapped to her back, Marja feels a bit more cheerful as she picks her way through the Ostagar camp. She focuses on the groups of armored humans, hoping to once again catch sight of King Cailan. The man himself is nowhere to be seen, but Marja gives his guards a charming smile and introduces herself as a Warden, and soon enough they’re passing on some interesting pieces of gossip.

It seems the king’s high regard for the Wardens is well-known. Just as well-known is the fact that this regard is not shared by Teyrn Loghain, the king’s foremost advisor.

“And where is this Teyrn?,” Marja asks, but the guard shakes his head.

“He’s preparing for the upcoming battle. He…” the guard casts a furtive glance behind him before continuing in a hushed tone. “He and the king have been arguing. Personally, I think Loghain is the reason we’ve been doing as well as we have. He knows what he’s doing. But the king doesn’t always listen to him, and Loghain’s been in a sour mood for days.”

The nearby tent flap opens noisily, and the guard Marja is chatting with springs to attention as a towering, dark-haired man lumbers by. Judging by the expensive state of his armor and the hostile expression he wears, Marja supposes that this must be the formidable Teyrn Loghain. She smiles and nods her head respectfully as he passes, but he only gives her a dark look.

“He must know you’re with the Wardens,” the guard comments after Loghain has passed.

“Of course he does,” Marja mutters. The king’s welcome had been more than friendly enough, but apparently that's another matter on which the teyrn and the king disagree. Marja sighs. Grudges and rivalries are what landed her here in the first place; she’ll need to make an effort to get on this teyrn’s good side if she wishes to avoid more of the same while she’s with the Wardens. And speaking of the Wardens…

“Do you have any idea where a fellow named Alistair is?” she asks the guard.

He motions further down the camp. “Another Warden? One of the mages came through a while ago looking for him. Went storming off that way.”

Marja frowns. An angry mage doesn’t sound good. Just how many people here, she wonders, have a problem with the Grey Wardens?

 

“You’re not another mage, are you?” The man- Alistair, Marja presumes- looks down at her with a tired smile. He’s outfitted in Grey Warden armor, but other than that is not at all what Marja expected. He’s young, young enough to be Duncan’s son, and even as he readies himself for another verbal assault there’s a glint of amusement in his eyes.

His question catches Marja off guard. She raises an eyebrow. “I’m a dwarf.” Surely the surfacers know that dwarves can’t perform magic?

Alistair only shrugs. “Hey, you never know. These mages can be sneaky. And they don’t like me much. Not that I can blame them, I suppose. I'm pretty sure the Revered Mother is using me as a messenger specifically to insult them."

"Is the presence of a Grey Warden such an insult?" Marja asks, and Alistair shrugs somewhat self-consciously.

"It's not the Warden part they care about. I was once in training to be a Templar, you see. It was long ago, and it shouldn't matter anymore. But still. You can imagine how the Circle mages feel about that.”

Marja can’t imagine, in fact. She wracks her brain for what she’s learned about Templars- something about working with mages and the Circle, but there’s obviously more to it than that.

Before she can ask for clarification, Alistair rubs his chin and nods in recognition. “Oh, wait, I know who you are- you’re one of the new recruits. Duncan told me to expect you. You came straight from Orzammar, didn’t you?”

“We did. And apparently we need to complete some sort of Joining?”

“Ah. Yes.  Duncan will explain the details once we’re all together, but we’ll be going into the Korcari Wilds. Nothing too dangerous out there, really, just rabid wildlife and darkspawn.” He grins, and Marja thinks he might be making another joke.

“I have plenty of experience with darkspawn from the Deep Roads, so that doesn’t sound too difficult,” she replies. At least they’ll be in the open; Marja already prefers the openness of the sky above her to the suffocation of the Deep Roads tunnels she’d been exiled to. There’s no possible way the Wilds can be worse than that.

 

After an hour in the thick woods, Marja still doesn’t think the Wilds are worse than the Deep Road tunnels, but she is starting to think that their group may be lost. Alistair leads them through twisting paths, his Warden senses supposedly pointing him to the darkspawn they seek.

As they walk, she has little time to pause and appreciate the new landscape, although she wishes she could. Snow still covers the ground in some places, but it’s warmer than it was in the mountains, and every now and then stubborn flowers peek up from beneath the white powder.  Marja has seen flowers, of course, but they were dry, wilted things, brought to the palace by traveling merchants. These are soft, alive, and in colors so bright Marja can scarcely believe it. Alistair claims some of them can be used for healing, and Marja grabs a few as they walk and tucks them into her bag. She’ll study them later, but for now she needs to focus on this mission.

Which would be easier if she knew why they're on this mission.

To collect darkspawn blood is the reason Duncan gave, but Marja can’t imagine why they would possibly need something like that. The rest of the mission makes sense- find an old Warden fort, retrieve treaties drawn up years ago between the Wardens and their allies- but darkspawn blood? Marja has been turning over different possibilities in her mind as they search, but she can’t think of any sensible reason for the task.

All she knows is that they need it for the Joining Ritual, and that fact makes Marja uneasy. She’s reminded of the Silent Sisters of Orzammar, and how as a child she’d briefly wanted to join their ranks. She’d been enamored with the idea of the legion of warrior women. Then Trian had informed her of their practice of cutting out their own tongues, and with sword in hand had offered to remove hers for her. Marja had lost her interest after that.

Whatever this Joining is, Marja thinks, it can't compare to removing a tongue. Especially if the other recruits are expected to do it.

To say the other recruits have left her unimpressed is an understatement. In addition to Marja, the Wardens have recruited Jory, who jumps with fright at the very idea of darkspawn, and Daveth, a petty criminal who argues like a child. And of course there’s Darvis, who still refuses to have a civilized conversation. If these are considered candidates for the Wardens, then surely Marja herself is more than qualified for whatever this Joining entails.

“I can sense some of the darkspawn up ahead. When you collect the blood, try not to touch it,” Alistair calls from the head of the group. Marja looks in the direction he indicates and sure enough, a huddled group of dark figures is just barely visible in the distance.

“Are there any more around us?” Marja asks, studying their position.

“Not that I can tell,” Alistair responds.

“Good. We can move around the ridge and hit them from behind.” Marja cuts a glance at Alistair as she says this, wondering if she’s breaking some chain of command by giving orders, but he doesn’t seem to notice. In fact, he seems ready to follow her plan.

“So now you’re the one in charge?”

Marja shoots an icy glare at Darvis. It seems he’s ready to take offense on Alistair’s behalf. “I’m merely offering a plan of attack,” she says tersely. “I have experience with these creatures, and I know how to deal with them.”

“Maybe the actual Warden has a better idea on how to deal with them.”

Alistair looks immensely uncomfortable as he realizes he’s been dragged into the argument. “Umm… that sounds fine, really. Let’s not waste time arguing- we need to find the old Warden outpost after we get the blood, and we want to return before it gets dark.”

Marja smiles and lifts her head, pointedly ignoring the glare Darvis continues to shoot her way. “I agree.”

The darkspawn are gathered in a small group- a handful of hurlocks and one genlock. Darvis and Daveth, the quietest of the group, edge forward ahead of the warriors to catch the creatures by surprise.

Darvis moves in first, rushing in close to bury one knife in the back of a hurlock’s knees and the other in its neck as it falls to the ground. The other creatures turn at the noise, but not quickly enough to launch a proper defense.

Darvis frees his knife and rolls to the side as one of the creatures rushes at him. Before he can retaliate, Marja is in front of him. She heaves her battleaxe high, swinging it in an arc just in time to catch a hurlock in the face and cleave its head neatly in two. Marja grins grimly as she pulls the axe into another swing to push back a second incoming hurlock. She decides in that moment that she’s rather happy with her new weapon.

Between the five fighters, the darkspawn are quickly disposed. Once they’re all down, Marja pulls the small glass vial from her bag and begins the messy work of gathering the darkspawn blood. The blood is black and congealing quickly into a thick slime. She takes great care not to touch it as she gathers it into the vial.

“Is this enough for… whatever we need this shit for?” Beside Marja, Darvis holds his vial up for Alistair’s inspection. Alistair glances at the vial and gives a quick nod. Marja can’t help but notice the way his eyes dart away just a bit too quickly. She's trying not to become paranoid, but with every passing minute this process is making Marja more nervous. Lost in her thoughts, it takes Marja a moment to realize that Darvis is still knelt by the fallen darkspawn, running his hands over the creature’s armor.

What are you doing?” Marja asks, distaste evident in her voice.

Darvis glances up and raises an eyebrow, motioning to the body at his feet. ”Looting.” He tugs at the thing’s holster until he manages to release a knife, which he then slides into his own belt.

Marja wrinkles her nose as Darvis continues to search the mangled corpse. To steal from a body for the sake of survival is one thing, but this just feels vulgar. “We don’t have time for this,” she snaps. “And you already have at least four knives.”

“You can never have too many knives, princess.”

Marja decides not to argue further and simply turns away, back to Alistair. “We have the blood. Now where are these treaties supposed to be?”

 


 

Darvis can’t help but wonder if this mysterious Joining is just a bizarre hazing ritual.

If it is, he’s lived through worse. Beraht had his own ways of testing his people’s loyalty, and Darvis would much rather hunt down hurlocks than fellow Carta members who had been skimming a little too much off the top of their profits.

Still. There’s something about collecting the blood that sets his nerves on edge.

Other than the freaky blood mysteries, Darvis likes this other Warden well enough. Alistair is tall and broad, even more so than the other humans, but jokes and chatters with an ease that Duncan lacks. And yet he’s still tight-lipped about the reasons behind the blood collection. With nothing else to go on, Darvis hopes it’s simply meant to prove they can kill darkspawn on their own and that they’ll be getting rid of the stuff as soon as they can.

Not with your luck, duster, a voice says in the back of his mind. Darvis tries to ignore it.

The other recruits are human as well. There’s Daveth, whose story is similar to Darvis’s- a thief who got caught and was rescued from punishment by the Warden’s Rite of Conscription. He seems pleased with his change of fate, and between his snarky jokes and nonchalant attitude Darvis thinks he and Leske would get along. And then there’s Ser Jory, the only recruit who joined of his own will and who now seems to be regretting that decision very much.

The noise of snapping branches jolts Darvis from his thoughts. Before he can locate the source of the noise, a large black thing shoots out from a nearby bush and launches itself into the sky, emitting a raspy shriek as it rises. Darvis jumps in surprise, his hand reaching automatically for a dagger even as he realizes there is no threat.

“I hate those fucking things,” he mutters darkly to himself.

“The crows?” Alistair asks. “They’re not so bad. They always show up around battle sites, but they’re just scavengers. I’d rather have them than the darkspawn, at any rate.” Darvis fall into step next to the Warden, keeping a wary eye on the sky and tree branches overhead.

 “Scavenger or not, I don’t trust anything that can fly,” Darvis says drily. “There’s just something wrong about that. At least the darkspawn stay on the sodding ground.”

Alistair chuckles, and gives Darvis a curious look. “Have you fought many before? Darkspawn, I mean. Not crows, obviously.”

Darvis shakes his head. “No, fighting the guardsmen kept me busy enough.”

“Ah. I see. I didn’t realize you had such a… colorful background.” Alistair shifts awkwardly, as if suddenly worried he’s said something wrong.

The thought almost makes Darvis laugh. “That’s probably the nicest way you could describe my background.”

Alistair nods, a look of relief crossing his face. They walk in silence for a moment, until Alistair clears his throat. “So, uh… not to pry, but how do you know Marja? I was under the impression you hadn’t met before being recruited, but you two seem to have some… issues.”

Darvis snorts. “I don’t have to know her to know what she’s like.”

Alistair looks confused at this, and Darvis realizes that this human has no context for the reasons a dwarf with a brand on his face might take issue with anyone from nobility. He may not even know that the mark on Darvis’s face has a meaning. A fleeting shiver of panic seizes Darvis as he wonders if he should explain the weight of his caste- or lack of it, rather- to Alistair.

Thankfully, he doesn’t have to. Before Darvis can formulate an answer, Daveth gives a shout and points ahead to where crumbling ruins have become visible over the tops of the trees. The Wardens hurry their pace, and more of the ruins quickly come into view.

An old stone arch, so overgrown with moss that it’s hard to distinguish from the surrounding forest, marks the entrance to what must have once been a small fortress. It’s not a promising sight. The odds of documents surviving out here, even if locked away, seem slim. The forefront building doesn’t even have a roof anymore. It’s fallen away, taking one of the walls with it.

“This seems hopeless,” Darvis says, peering through the remains of the wall into the room within. Not much is visible; the floor is covered in chunks of stones and invading vines.

Marja pushes her way to the front of the group, studying the ruins with a critical eye. “We still need to at least make an attempt to find the treaties.”

“You’re welcome to begin digging, princess,” Darvis snaps back as he scans the darkness. He expects a retort from the noble, but the voice that cuts through the ruins is one he’s never heard.

“Well, well. What have we here?”

Startled, Darvis turns on his heel, reaching for his daggers. At the other end of the ruins, standing at the end of a set of old stone steps, is a tall, dark-haired human woman. She approaches them slowly, observing each of them in turn, but gives no sign of hostility. Her eyes finally fix on Darvis, who still stands in the opening of the old fortress, hands on his weapons.

“Are you a vulture, I wonder? A scavenger poking amidst a corpse whose bones were long since cleaned? Or merely an intruder, come into these darkspawn-filled Wilds of mine in search of easy prey? What say you, hmm? Scavenger or intruder?”

For a moment, Darvis can’t find his voice. This woman is strange, and not only because she’s out here in the forest by herself. Everything about her seems a bit… different. She certainly doesn’t speak like the other humans, and her attire doesn’t match that of the women at the Ostagar camp. She wears a long skirt made of some sort of dark leather, and her top is a twisting purple material decorated with stones and feathers. But despite her strange appearance and challenging words, she makes no move to attack.

Her eyes are still locked on Darvis, and hesitantly, he steps forward. “We’re with the Grey Wardens. Who are you?”

“You are the intruder here, not I.” She moves closer, her voice rising. “I have watched you for some time. Where do they come from, I wondered. Why are they here? And now you disturb ashes none have touched for so long. Why is that?”

Watching us? Darvis thinks. True, his senses are confused by the woods, but he's certain they were alone until now. Before he can question the woman, Alistair speaks up. “Don’t answer her. She looks Chasind, and that means others may be nearby.”

The woman remains unimpressed, a mocking smile forming on her lips. “You fear barbarians will swoop down upon you?”

Alistair frowns and mutters, “Yes, swooping is bad.”

“She’s a Witch of the Wilds, she is!” Daveth shouts, a bit of hysteria creeping into his voice. “She’ll turn us into toads!” Daveth certainly looks frightened by the notion, although Darvis has no idea what the man is talking about.

“Enough!” The exclamation comes from Marja, who shoots Daveth a stern glare before turning her attention to the woman. “We’re not here to fight. We’re here to retrieve treaties that are of great importance to the Grey Wardens. Once we find them, we will be on our way.”

The woman considers this for a moment before answering. “What you seek is here no longer.”

 “Here no longer?” Alistair asks. “You stole them, didn’t you? You’re some kind of… sneaky… witch-thief!”

“How very eloquent,” she replies flatly. “How does one steal from dead men? In any case, it was not I who took them. ‘Twas my mother, in fact. If you wish, I will take you to her. ‘Tis not far from here, and you may ask her for your papers, if you like.”

Alistair frowns and looks at the other Wardens. “We should get the treaties, but I dislike this. It’s too convenient.”

“Well, we’re not finding anything here. Let’s just go see if she’s telling the truth,” Darvis says impatiently.

“You trust her?” Marja asks, voice tinged with disbelief.

Darvis merely gives her a noncommittal shrug. “Not like we have much choice, if these papers are so damned important.”

The woman, who has been waiting silently through their discussion, smiles at this. “Finally, some sense. Come with me, then.” Without another word, she sets off into the trees. The Wardens are left with little choice but to follow.

“You never did answer my question,” Darvis says as he picks through the bushes after the woman. “Who are you?”

She looks back at him, and he notices for the first time that her eyes are a startling shade of gold. In the shadows of the forest, they almost seem to carry a light of their own. “You may call me Morrigan, if you wish.”

Chapter Text

Marja does not trust the mysterious woman who appeared out of the woods, and she does not like the fact that they’re following her deeper into the forest. Judging by the reactions from the humans in the group, she’s not the only one suspicious of this woman. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be any other option.

Morrigan leads them to an old, twisted hut hidden away in the trees, a single trail of smoke curling from its long chimney. A woman stands in the doorway, ready and waiting as if she's been expecting visitors. She’s old, with gray tangled hair and leathery skin, and she watches them with an unreadable expression.

Morrigan gestures towards her. “Allow me to introduce my mother. Flemeth.”

Jory takes a sharp, frightened breath at the sound of the name, but before he can say anything Morrigan is already calling out to the woman.

“Mother, I’ve brought the Grey Wardens-”

“I see them, girl,” Flemeth cuts her off. Her voice reminds Marja of rough, unsanded stone. She shifts uneasily as the woman observes the group before her. “Hmm. Much as I expected.”

“We’re supposed to believe you were expecting us?” Alistair grumbles, clearly unhappy with the situation they’ve found themselves in. Morrigan flashes him a look of annoyance, but her mother doesn’t seem affected.

“You are required to do nothing, least of all believe.” Flemeth grins. “Shut one’s eyes tight or open one’s arms wide… either way, one’s a fool!”

“She’s a witch, I tell you,” Daveth whispers, and although Marja doesn’t exactly know what a witch of the wilds is, she thinks he’s right to be wary.

“If she’s really a witch, do you want to make her mad?” Jory responds, and this earns a laugh from the woman.

“Now, there’s a smart lad! Sadly irrelevant, but it is not I who decides such things.” Her eyes fix on Marja and Darvis. “I know what these humans believe. What of the dwarves?”

Marja frowns at being lumped together with the unpleasant rogue, but she pushes away the irritation and focuses on the woman before her. “I’m not quite certain what to believe about you,” she says slowly.

She can practically feel Darvis rolling his eyes. “So far, I believe you’re crazy,” he says. “Probably dangerous, too.” Marja shoots him a warning look, but Darvis ignores her. His eyes are on Morrigan and her mother. “They say you’re a Witch of the Wilds.”

Flemeth laughs again. “Witch of the Wilds? Morrigan must have told you that. She fancies such tales, though she would never admit it. Oh, how she dances under the moon!”

“They did not come here to listen to your ramblings, Mother,” Morrigan says, a faint flush rising to her cheeks.

Her words are answered with a sigh. “True. They came for their treaties.” She pulls a thick roll of papers from her robes. Before Marja has a chance to ask how this woman knew they would be in search of the treaties, she’s handing them over to Alistair. “Your precious seal wore off long ago. I have protected them.”

“You…protected them?” Alistair sounds as surprised as Marja feels, but Flemeth takes it in stride.

“And why not? Take them to your Grey Wardens and tell them this Blight’s threat is greater than they realize!”

“What do you mean?” Marja asks sharply.

Flemeth tilts her head and grins wider. “Either the threat is greater or they realize less. Now, you have what you came for!” She nods curtly, the dismissal clear. “Morrigan, see to your guests.”

Morrigan sighs, obviously unamused by her mother’s behavior. “Of course. Come, I will lead you back your camp.” Marja is more than happy to leave this strange meeting, but even as they move away, the uneasy feeling doesn’t fade. Flemeth’s hut slowly fades from view, but her laughter still seems to ring in Marja’s ears.

 

Night is setting in as the group returns to Ostagar once more. They’re waved inside by the guards and greeted immediately by Duncan, who takes the treaties and flips through them with relief.

“These will be of much aid to us,” he says, nodding to himself. “And I trust you were successful in your other task as well?”

“We were,” Marja answers. “Although we still don’t understand the purpose of it.” Duncan’s eyes flash to her face, and for a brief moment Marja thinks she can read some emotion in the stoic man. It’s not irritation, or apprehension, or anything else Marja is accustomed to receiving in response to her questions; it’s concern.

“You will find out soon enough. I must go and finish the preparation for the Joining Ritual. We will meet for the ritual in an hour’s time, and your questions will be answered.” With that, Duncan turns and leaves the recruits in the cold night.

“The more I hear about this ritual, the less I like it,” Jory murmurs as they watch Duncan leave.

“Are you blubbering again?” Daveth snaps, shooting the knight a venomous glare. The tension has only made both humans more irritable through the day. Now they’re both on edge, eyeing each other with misdirected suspicion. In the meantime, Marja notes, Darvis has somehow managed to slip away unseen, yet again.

“Why all these damned tests?” Jory demands. “Have I not earned my place?”

“Oh, I’m sure this is all for the sake of annoying you,” Daveth says curtly.

Marja shoots a glance at Alistair, but he gives no sign of intending to step in. She bites back a sigh. If left to their own devices, these fools will start brawling right in the middle of camp. “Enough,” she says firmly, and they both look at her in surprise. As if they forgot she was even there. Marja allows a hint of anger to creep into her tone as she continues, “Arguing changes nothing. We’re all here. We’re all about to become Wardens together. There will be plenty of time for you two to whine at each other later. For now, we should all get some rest before the Joining.”

The men deflate but part ways without further argument, and Alistair gives Marja a sheepish, relieved look. “Joining is always stressful for recruits, I suppose. I… I should go help Duncan, he-”

“What aren’t you telling us?”

Alistair’s face is far easier to read than Duncan’s. The guilt that flashes through his expression may as well be written in ink on his forehead. Marja’s eyes narrow. “What will happen to us tonight?”

Silence hangs heavy in the air as Alistair opens his mouth wordlessly, then closes it again. At last he says, “You’ll become a Grey Warden, I hope. I’m sorry, I really can’t say anything more.” And then he, too, turns and retreats into the camp.

 

Hey.”

Darvis stops in his tracks and turns to face Marja with his signature scowl. It’s what made him easy to track him down; she just asked the humans if they’d seen a grumpy-looking dwarf pass by. Before he can say anything, Marja holds up a hand. “You don’t want to talk to me. Fine. Just tell me- do you know anything about the how this Joining works?”

Darvis eyes her warily. “What makes you think I know anything you don’t?”

“Just covering my bases.” It’s the truth- Daveth and Jory are as clueless as she is, as are all the other humans in the camp. But Darvis has already proven adept at skulking around. If anyone could have been spying on the other Wardens, it's him. “Nobody else knows and I can’t get Alistair to talk. Has Duncan or any of the other Wardens said anything at all about it?”

For a moment Marja thinks Darvis is just going to insult her and stalk away again, but after a pause he crosses his arms and a pensive look settles onto his face. “No. And I’ll admit, I don’t like it either. But there’s no backing out now, is there?”

“I’m not trying to back out,” Marja answers. “I’d just like to know what I’m getting myself into.”

“Well, I don’t have answers for you.” Darvis sighs, and Marja realizes that although he’s trying not to show it, the lack of knowledge is just as frustrating for him. He looks as if he’s about to say something else, but before he can a human rushes up to them.

“Excuse me! The guards said a group with some dwarves entered the Wilds today. Was that you?”

Are there really no other dwarves in this camp? Marja wonders, but all she says is, “Yes, that was us.”

The man clasps his hands together and gives her a hopeful look. “Did you happen to gather any medicine while you were out? Flowers, with white petals?”

“I don’t know about medicine, but…” Marja rifles through her bag until she finds a plant fitting the description. “Do you mean these?”

“Yes! Wonderful! May I purchase some? It’s for a noble cause- one of the war hounds was poisoned by the darkspawn, and I need this plant to cure him-”

“A hound?” Darvis interrupts, looking perplexed.

“Like a nug with fur,” Marja explains. She's heard of these things before, mainly that the humans are incredibly fond of them. “And of course I’ll help.” She hands the plant over and waves away the man’s money. “Please, no- this seems a worthy cause, and it will do you more good than it will me.” She hears Darvis make a noise of disbelief and pointedly ignores it.

The man doesn’t seem to notice at all. He seems overjoyed simply to be holding the plant. “Thank you!” He turns, then pauses and looks back at the two dwarves. “And if it’s not too much to ask, I do have one other favor you might help me with…”

 


 

The monster in front of Darvis is most certainly not a nug with fur.

The dog stands nearly as tall as Darvis himself, with claws and teeth and a predatory look. It gives a low warning growl as Darvis approaches with muzzle in hand. Still, he can sense Marja and the kennelmaster watching him, so he grits his teeth and doesn’t back down.

You’re being paid for this, duster, he reminds himself. Unlike some, he isn’t dull enough to not leap at a chance to earn some easy money. He just hopes he’s right about the ‘easy’ part.

“Go on,” the kennelmaster encourages from his secure spot behind the fence. “Just slip the muzzle on. You’ll be fine.”

The dog just stares at him with distrustful eyes. “Uh…easy there,” Darivs says uncertainly. He edges forward, and it bares its teeth- its very large, sharp teeth- and growls again.

This is bullshit, Darvis decides. He’s not about to be bullied by this weird surface beast. “Look,” he hisses under his breath to the dog, “either I’m going to put this thing on you so you can take your medicine, or you’re going to kill me and get sick, and then we’ll both be dead. What do you want to do?” He feels ridiculous, but the beast seems to consider his point. After a moment, it lets out a low whine and sits, its previous wariness replaced with a sense of resignation.

“I can’t believe that worked,” Darvis mutters to himself. He quickly fits the muzzle onto the dog and exits the enclosure, while the kennelmaster beams.

“Well done! I can treat the poor fellow properly now.”

“Not bad,” Marja comments, and Darvis can’t tell if she’s being serious or sarcastic. He’s more focused on the important matter at hand.

“The payment?” he prompts the kennelmaster.

“Of course!” The man rummages through the coinpurse at his waist and hands a few silver over to Darvis before nodding and turning back to his work. Darvis clutches the small sum and eyes the man’s purse, his fingers twitching at the thought of how easy a target it is. The princess is chatting now with the kennelmaster, neither of them paying him much mind. A simple bump is all it would take, perhaps as he leans over for another look at the dog.

Before he’s consciously made the decision he’s leaning forward, moving into position, and is only interrupted by a voice calling out for him.

“There you are.” Duncan has appeared out of nowhere, and Darvis jumps back, trying not to look suspicious. Duncan eyes him disapprovingly anyway. “Come. It is time for the recruits to gather for the Joining ritual.”

Duncan leads Marja and Darvis to the far end of camp, where Alistair tends to a secluded campfire. Daveth and Jory are hanging nearby, waiting anxiously, and Duncan motions for Marja to join them. Darvis, however, he holds back.

“We will join the rest of you in a moment,” Duncan says, and although Marja obviously has questions, she does as he says. From the look she gives him before walking away, Darvis knows she’ll be interrogating him again later. Once Marja is out of earshot, Duncan turns to Darvis. “I know of your talent with… sleight of hand.”

Shit. “Whoa, I didn't actually steal any-”

 “It is a good talent to have.” Duncan’s words catch Darvis by surprise, and the protestations of innocence die in his throat. “Grey Wardens use a diverse range of skills and tools to accomplish their mission. This is no different from any other.”

Darvis waits for the catch, expecting this to be some sort of joke. But Duncan doesn’t take back the words, and honestly he doesn’t seem the joking type. “Oh. Huh. So the Wardens are all right with me… finding a few things, every now and then?”

Duncan rubs his forehead. “So long as it aids in accomplishing the missions. And do keep in mind these skills must be practiced with caution. The law is very hard on thieves.”

“Believe me, I’m aware of that.”

“And your standing as a Warden will not always help you.”

“Help?” Darvis shrugs. “You only need help if you get caught.”

His wit earns no reaction. “I know that you have done what you’ve needed to in order to survive. It’s why I recruited you. The instinct to survive will, I hope, make you into a great Warden. And as a Warden you must act in the best interests of the order. This includes not risking yourself on something as trivial as a handful of silver.”

“I wouldn’t call that trivial. If it were copper, maybe. But silver…”

“Brosca,” Duncan cuts in, with a look that says I already let you off the hook once, don’t test my fucking patience. “All I ask is that you remember that after tonight, all of your past is left behind. Whatever you were before- whatever crimes you may have committed- you will become a Warden, and you must be dedicated to serving a higher purpose. At times, that may mean we will need skills that are considered less than scrupulous. And at other times it will mean that you need to show restraint.”

Darvis shifts under Duncan’s weighty gaze. He doesn’t know about all this ‘higher purpose’ shit, but so far the Wardens still treat him better than the Carta. He can cooperate if he has to. “Fine.”

Duncan nods. “Thank you. And while we’re on the subject, I should also remind you that all Wardens leave their past behind. What another Warden was before should not be held against them.” Darvis is confused by this shift in subject until Duncan looks pointedly to where Marja is standing by the fire. “You needn’t like each other, but you should be able to work together.”

Darvis narrows his eyes. Restraint is one thing, but asking Darvis to smile and play nice with the high and mighty Lady Aeducan? This human may have visited Orzammar, but he doesn’t know. He hasn’t had to watch the nobles sit pretty on their diamond thrones as they spit on people like Leske and Rica who have to fight and claw to live another day.

When he gets no response, Duncan sighs. “Think on what I’ve said. Perhaps we will speak on this again. but first, we must see what tonight brings. It is time for the Joining.”

 

Night falls as Duncan begins the ceremony. Before him stands a stone altar holding a large, silver goblet containing some liquid not fully discernible in the dim light of the nearby fire. Darvis and the other recruits are gathered in front of the altar as Alistair stands to the side, watching with apprehension as Duncan begins to speak.

“We Grey Wardens pay a heavy price to become what we are. Fate may decree that you pay your price now rather than later.” He pauses. “You would not have been chosen, however, if I did not think you had a chance to survive.”

A chance to survive? The realization strikes Darvis like an iron hammer, and yet it makes sense. The strange tasks, the unanswered questions, the blood and the ritual and all of the cryptic warnings…

Becoming Wardens might kill them.

 Darvis glances at the other recruits- Marja and Daveth are watching Duncan with stoic, unreadable expressions, but Jory is white as a sheet. Solemnly, Duncan lifts the goblet. “The Grey Wardens were founded during the First Blight, when humanity stood on the verge of annihilation. So it was that the first Grey Wardens drank of darkspawn blood and mastered their taint.”

“We’re going to drink the blood of those… those creatures?” Jory’s voice wavers as he speaks, and for once Darvis finds himself agreeing with the human. He’s never heard this type of story about the Grey Wardens.

Duncan is oblivious to the horror- or, more probably, doesn’t care to acknowledge it. “As the first Grey Wardens did before us, as we did before you. This is the source of our power and our victory. Those who survive the Joining become immune to the taint. We can sense it in the darkspawn and use it to slay the archdemon.” He lowers his eyes to the large goblet in his hands. “Not all who drink the blood will survive and those who do are forever changed. This is why the Joining is a secret. It is the price we pay.”

Forever changed? Duncan doesn’t elaborate on that part, and Darvis knows this isn’t the time to ask. His instincts scream at him to run, but his brain reminds him it’s far too late for that. Like it or not, he has to follow through with this- as do the other recruits.

Daveth is the first to drink. He steps forward with a willingness that takes Darvis by surprise. Without hesitation, he takes the goblet and pours the blood mixture into his mouth.

The reaction is immediate and violent. Daveth’s breath cuts off in a gurgle, and he clutches his throat, staggering and trying to take in ragged breaths between strangled gurgles. His skin changes shades, deathly blue to pale white to an odd pallid gray. Darvis looks away as he falls to the ground, biting down on his tongue to keep himself from becoming sick. He’s seen men die in countless ways; nothing has been like this.

The others are just as horrified. Marja’s eyes are wide and her hands cover her mouth. She seems to be whispering something to herself, though all Darvis can make out is the frantic repetition of Ancestors. Behind her is Ser Jory, who looks as if he may vomit at any second.

Duncan, however, wastes no time on the now dead recruit, instead fixing his gaze on the human knight. Jory shakes his head and backs away, staring open-mouthed at Daveth’s motionless body.

 “No…I have a wife. A child! Had I known…”

“There is no turning back,” Duncan says gravely. He moves steadily towards Jory, no hint of emotion in his expression.

“Jory, calm down!” Marja reaches toward the man but he jerks away, his eyes wild.

“No! You ask too much! There is no glory in this!” He reaches for the sword at his back. Don’t be stupid, Darvis thinks, but it’s too late. As soon as Jory’s hand reaches the hilt, Duncan is in front of him, his own sword drawn. One swift strike, and Duncan’s blade is embedded in Jory’s chest.

Duncan shoves the sword in deeper, slowly lowering Jory to the ground. As he lays the man down, Darvis just barely hears him say in a low voice, “I am sorry.”

Jory’s death is easier to watch. This, at least, is something Darvis has seen before- some fool getting himself killed because he wouldn’t follow orders. The bitter familiarity of the scene helps Darvis to steady himself.

Duncan stands and retrieves the goblet. “The Joining is not yet complete.”

He turns to Marja first. She is pale and silent but offers no protest when Duncan hands her the cup. Darvis half expects her to lose her nerve at the last minute, but although her hands shake she raises the goblet to her lips and takes a drink.

When she lurches forward with a choked gasp, Darvis thinks that she is about to meet the same fate as Daveth. But rather than convulsing, Marja goes rigid. Her head snaps up, eyes wide open and rolled back. Shallow, quick breaths shake her body. She stays like this for a long moment before collapsing to the ground, limp but breathing.

“She will awaken soon,” Duncan says, and Darvis nearly laughs out loud as he imagines the satisfaction the Warden must feel. At least one of them lived! What a success!

The delirium dies in his throat when Duncan turns to him, holding the goblet out expectantly. There’s not much of a choice to make. At Darvis’s feet lay the three options, and he can’t say he much likes any of them. But only one path offers even the chance of survival, so Darvis takes the goblet from Duncan and readies himself. He takes a drink, and only has one quick second to note the horrid taste before he blacks out.

Chapter Text

Darkness.

Whispers.

Blood running cold, then hot, then burning.

And then light, a painfully blinding flash of white.

And then out of the light, a creature- large and scaly and dragonish.

The name comes unbidden. Archdemon.

It screeches, high and piercing.

And then again, darkness.

 

Glaring light pierces Marja’s vision as she returns to consciousness, and it takes a few moments of disorientation for her to remember where she is.  She sits up with a start, her heart pounding.

“The dragon-”

“Hey, it’s okay. You made it.” Alistair’s voice brings back the memories of the ritual, and relief washes over Marja as she remembers she’s in Ostagar, alive and safe. She’s with the Wardens. She is a Warden.

Gradually, her breathing slows and she’s able to take in her surroundings. She’s still at the site of the ritual, on the ground where she fell after drinking-

The memory makes her stomach turn. Let’s hope that was a one-time deal, she thinks, and pulls herself to her feet with a groan.

“How are you feeling?” Alistair hovers over her, face drawn with worry. “Did you have dreams? I had… terrible dreams after my Joining. We all do.”

“Dwarves don’t dream,” Marja says automatically, but… she did. Or she thinks she did. She doesn’t have another word to describe the terrifying vision. “I don’t know. I saw… something.”

The rush of adrenaline begins to fade. Despite the momentary panic and the vision-dream, Marja doesn’t really feel any different. This isn’t as comforting as it perhaps should be. She just drank darkspawn blood. By all accounts, she should be emptying her stomach into a bucket right now.

“You saw the archdemon,” Duncan says. He’s a few feet away, leaning over Darvis. From where she stands, Marja can’t tell if the other dwarf is dead or simply unconscious. “Such dreams come as you begin to sense the darkspawn. It happens to all Wardens- even dwarves. That and many other things-” A spluttering cough interrupts his words, and Darvis lurches up.

Fuck!” he cries, rubbing his head viciously, and as strange as it is Marja can’t help but be glad to hear him complain. After what happened to Jory and Daveth, it’s simply reassuring to see somebody else survive.

“So I dream now. Okay,” Marja murmurs. “Wow. I see now why the Joining is such a secret.”

“Such is what it takes to become a Grey Warden.” Duncan’s words are soft and serious, but the effect is slightly ruined by the fact that Darvis is still loudly growling obscenities next to him. Duncan reaches out to steady him as he climbs to his feet, then continues. “You both can take some time to rest, but unfortunately we don’t have long. We’ll be meeting with the king tonight.”

Marja’s ears perk up, and for a short moment the darkspawn are all but forgotten. “The king?”

“We will be discussing strategy for the upcoming battle. But first…” Duncan nods at Alistair, who hurries to the altar near the campfire. The Joining Chalice sits on top, looking much less ominous when empty of darkspawn blood. Alistair ignores the cup and retrieves a bundle of clothes and armor from a compartment in the altar. He hands a portion of the bundle to Marja- dark blue cloth, heavy and durable, folded under polished silver armor emblazoned with the symbol of a winged creature.

“You are now truly Wardens,” Duncan says. Marja runs her fingers over the silver symbol. A griffon, she remembers. Even in Orzamaar, children are told tales of the creatures. She’s never given them much thought before.

Duncan looks to Alistair. “I must go. When you are all ready, come join us.” Marja has a million more burning questions for the man, but before she can voice any of them, he is gone. Marja sighs and turns to Alistair instead.

“What was he saying before? About the dreams, and sensing darkspawn? We can do that now?”

“You won’t sense them right away,” Alistair replies. “It comes a little at a time. The dream was the start of it. And there are other changes, as well.”

“There’s more?” Darvis asks.

“Yes, we’re full of surprises here,” Alistair replies, but his joking tone is met only with stony stares. “It’s not all as bad as the Joining,” he rushes to clarify. “There are some useful changes. The legends of Warden strength and endurance aren’t just tall tales. It’s gradual, but you’ll start to feel like you have more energy- you’ll definitely be eating a lot more over the next few months.”

He pauses, then adds reluctantly, “And if Duncan is right and this is a true Blight, you’ll be having more dreams.” 

“Great,” Darvis mutters. “Are they all like… whatever the blazes that was?”

Alistair shrugs helplessly. “Probably. Sorry. I know they’re far from pleasant. But at least you’re alive!” He looks between the two dwarves, his smile full of hope.

“At least we’re alive,” Darvis repeats in less optimistic tone. He unfolds his own uniform, letting the fabric run between his fingers, and grunts in appreciation. Marja looks back at her own, the silver griffon glinting in the firelight.

No point in waiting around, she thinks as she gathers the uniform and heads to her tent. She has a meeting to attend.

 

After changing into her new equipment, Marja heads toward the area of camp reserved for the king and his advisors. Voices are already raised in argument by the time she arrives.

“Loghain, my decision is final. I will stand by the Grey Wardens in this assault!” Cailan’s voice is strained but firm- the sound of someone who’s had the same fight too many times. He, Duncan, and Loghain are gathered around a long table overlaid with parchments and maps. Alistair stands to the side, looking as if he’d like nothing more than to disappear. Marja quickly joins him and stands at attention. Just as she starts to wonder where Darvis has run off to, he appears out of nowhere beside her, outfitted in his own uniform. Alistair nods at them in greeting, but their attention is drawn back to the meeting as the argument gets louder.

“You risk too much,” Loghain responds. He glares at the young king, his impatience a nearly tangible thing. “The darkspawn horde is too dangerous for you to be playing hero on the front lines.”

“If that’s the case, perhaps we should wait for the Orlesian forces, after all,” Cailan replies, and Loghain’s face darkens further.

“I must repeat my protest to your fool notion that we need the Orlesians to defend ourselves!”

Cailan stares back coolly. “Then our current forces will have to suffice, won’t they? Duncan, are your men ready for battle?”

Duncan nods, his gaze flickering back to the Wardens behind him. “They are, Your Majesty.”

Cailan seems to notice them for the first time, and the hostility he showed Loghain melts away. “Ah, the recruits I met on the road. I understand congratulations are in order.”

“Congratulations?” Darvis mutters dubiously. “For what, not dying?” Marja elbows him in sharp disapproval, although she doesn’t take her eyes off the king as she flashes him a smile.

“Thank you, Your Majesty. It is truly an honor to be here.” She’s laying it on a bit thick, but flattery is small price to pay for the approval of a potential ally.

Cailan beams at her. “You are right to be proud to join the ranks of such prestigious warriors. Together, we will drive the darkspawn from our land.” He motions towards the table, and Marja leans forward to look. The geography of the wilds and the ruins within are laid out before her, small markers depicting troop movements scattered across the paper.

Loghain huffs. The glare he shoots towards the Wardens is enough to show what he thinks of the king’s praise. “Your fascination with glory and legends will be your undoing, Cailan. We must attend to reality.”

“Fine,” the king says curtly. “Speak your strategy. The Grey Wardens and I draw the darkspawn into charging our lines and then…?”

Loghain motions to the map. “You will alert the tower to light the beacon, signaling my men to charge from cover. I have some men stationed at the tower. Lighting the beacon will not be a dangerous task, but it is vital.”

 “Then we should send our best.” Cailan’s eyes flash towards Alistair, who is standing far from the table and seems to be trying to sink into the background. “Send the Wardens to make sure it is done.”

Loghain’s mouth draws tight in irritation. “You rely on these Grey Wardens too much. Is this truly wise?”

Marja rushes to speak before Darvis can make another snarky retort. “I’m certain we will be up to the task, Ser.” Loghain turns his glare to her, and she meets it steadily, giving him no expression other than a slight, polite smile. In truth, the task seems a waste of her talent, no matter how the vital this signal may be. Her skills are better suited for battle, not running errands on the sidelines. But she will not argue here, in front of the king’s surly advisor who already bears a grudge against the order.

Before Loghain can raise any more protests, Duncan intercedes. “Your Majesty, you should consider the possibility of the archdemon appearing.”

“Isn’t that what your men are here for, Duncan?” Cailan responds, raising an eyebrow, and Duncan falls silent for a moment.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” he says at last, although he’s clearly far from satisfied. Cailan, however, grins with excitement.

“I cannot await that glorious moment! The Grey Wardens doing battle alongside the King of Ferelden to stem the tide of evil!”

“Yes, Cailan.” Loghain’s voice is tired as the man turns his attention back to the maps on the table. “A glorious moment for all.”

 


 

Alistair isn’t pleased with the assignment from the king. He grumbles about it after the meeting, but Duncan stands firm against his pleas to join the main battle.

“This is the king’s personal request, Alistair,” Duncan says, a look of warning on his face. “If the beacon is not lit, the Teyrn’s men won’t know when to charge.”

“I agree with Alistair,” Marja cuts in. Darvis is surprised by her argument; she’s been happy enough to kiss up to the king when face to face with him. Now frustration creeps into her voice. “We should be in the battle.”

Darvis says nothing, just runs his fingers over the buckles of his new uniform. He doesn’t understand why the other Wardens are so ready to run headfirst into the worst of the fight. He’s barely recovered from the archdemon visions that the Joining sent flashing through his brain- the last thing he wants is to jump into a pile of darkspawn. Unfortunately, ‘jump into a pile of darkspawn’ seems to be the Warden job description.

At least the uniforms are nice. Darvis is pretty sure his new armor is worth more than his house back in Dust Town.

“We must do whatever it takes to destroy to the darkspawn. Exciting or no.” Duncan’s tone invites no argument. Alistair deflates slightly, and Marja crosses her arms with a resigned look.

“I get it,” Alistair sighs. “But just so you know, if the king ever asks me to put on a dress and dance the Remigold, I’m drawing the line. Darkspawn or no.”

“You have some odd ideas about the king,” Darvis comments. Alistair chuckles, and even Marja’s mouth twitches slightly upward in the suggestion of a smile.

The levity is short-lived. Duncan runs through their orders- ascend the tower, light the beacon, kill any darkspawn they come across. Simple enough.

“And can we join the battle afterwards?” Marja asks.

“Stay and guard the tower. If you are needed, we will send word.”

Marja doesn’t look completely pleased with the answer, but she offers no more argument as they head out. They part ways with Duncan at the gate, and Alistair nods at Duncan before they go.

“May the Maker watch over you,” he says, his voice uncharacteristically serious, and Duncan nods in return.

“May He watch over us all.”

 

Darvis remembers those words later, in the thick of battle.

The mission that Alistair and Marja have labeled as being too simple and safe turns out to be far more complicated than they anticipated. Darkspawn surround the tower in waves, and these are not the unsuspecting, disconnected groups they found earlier in the wilds. This is, truly, an army.

The three Wardens carve through the darkspawn as quickly as they can, but the tower is thickly infested and their progress is slow. If this is what they’re facing, Darvis shudders to imagine what Duncan and the main forces must be up against. He hopes, in the back of his mind, that the humans’ Maker is better at protection than dwarven ancestors.

But he doesn’t have time to think about Duncan for long- the battle at hand commands his full attention. By the time they clear the tower’s main entrance of darkspawn, the group is already blood-spattered and breathing heavily.

“There weren’t supposed to be this many,” Alistair says when they take a quick moment to rest. His eyes are tight with concern as he scans the darkspawn corpses littered across the floor.

“I thought you wanted to fight more,” Darvis points out as he rubs a poultice into a wound on his arm. The injury isn’t too severe- the arrow barely grazed him- but it means he’ll be favoring one arm for the near future.

“So this is a silver lining, then?” Alistair replies with the ghost of a smile. He takes a deep breath and repositions his silver shield. “Fair enough. Come on- we need to keep pushing through if we’re going to light the beacon in time.”

“Hopefully the darkspawn were contained to the lower floors,” Marja comments. She stands at the foot of the stairs, her blood-soaked battleaxe strapped to her back. “This tower must have had some defenses to slow them down.”

As it turns out, no, the tower doesn’t have defenses. What it does have is a fucking massive ogre rampaging on the top floor.

“How did this thing even get up here?” Darvis demands as he skirts along the wall, trying to stay out of the beast’s sight. The ogre is thick and gruesome and easily nine feet tall, with horns and fists heavy as anvils. But thankfully, it seems to have poor eyesight.

“Not important right now!” Alistair answers. He circles the monster with Marja, who slashes at it with her axe and manages to draw blood but is swiftly repaid by being thrown against the wall. The ogre advances on her but is distracted by Alistair attacking from the side, sinking his sword into its arm.

Darvis stays at his spot against the wall. He has knives, and compared to this thing those knives look more like toothpicks. He'll let the warriors handle this monstrosity.

Marja is back on her feet now, and together she and Alistair attack the ogre with an onslaught of blows. The ogre’s movements slow, and for a moment it seems as if they’re about to bring it down. Then the creature lets out an angry, ear-splitting bellow, and throws a punch at Alistair that sends him flying across the room. Marja manages to dodge the blow but is left on her own against the towering beast, not able to get close enough to land a hit as she tries to avoid getting pummeled herself.

The ogre now has its back turned completely to Darvis. Alistair is on the other side of the room, struggling to his feet and about to charge back into the fray- but he’s also only a few feet from the beacon.

Shit. Darvis knows what he has to do. He screams, “I’ve got this, you light the signal!” He doesn’t give himself too much time to reconsider before darting forward and sinking a blade into the back of the ogre’s knee.

With a screech of pain, the ogre staggers unsteadily, flailing for Darvis but unable to find him in its hobbled state. Darvis throws all of his strength into a blow aimed at the ogre’s back, sending it to its knees. Marja wastes no time in taking advantage of the position. She leaps forward and brings her axe down hard across the ogre’s neck.

The thing falls to the ground hard as a blinding light fills the room. Darvis turns to see Alistair standing next to a blazing fire. “There,” the man says with a breath of relief. “Loghain’s forces will be joining the king now.”

“And we should as well,” Marja says, pulling her axe from the ogre’s body. Darvis still can’t believe they took the monstrosity down, and jumps in alarm when the body twitches feebly. He stabs it once more through an eye, just to be safe. Marja nods at him in wordless thanks, and despite the battle they’ve just been through she still wears a steely, determined expression. Darvis hates to admit it, but her resolve is impressive. “If what we saw here is any indication of the forces-”

A series of screeches and roars interrupt her words, and the Wardens turn in unison to the towers entrance.

“Reinforcements,” Alistair says grimly, and Darvis shakes his head. Impossible, he thinks. We killed so many. How can there be more?

But the sounds from below don’t allow him to doubt for long. He draws his daggers, shooting a look at Alistair. “Any chance we can expect reinforcements?”

“We can hold them off,” Alistair says, and Darvis resists the urge to point out that he didn’t answer the question.

“Will there be more of these ugly things?” he asks instead, motioning to the ogre body.

Marja heaves her axe to a fighting stance. “We’ll find out soon.”

Darvis knows the odds- with only the three of them against another surge of monsters that have them cornered at the top of the tower, they aren't good. But knowing the odds has never stopped him before, so he readies his blades and, side by side with the other Wardens, braces for the first wave of darkspawn to reach them.

Chapter Text

The fight is hopeless from the start.

There are simply too many darkspawn. Darvis dodges and stabs and slices until his daggers are slick with black blood and his muscles are drained of energy, and they just keep coming.

The others aren’t faring much better. Alistair lost his shield at some point in the fray, and now desperately fends off darkspawn with only his sword. Marja’s heavy swings have less and less power to them, exhaustion evident on her face as she forces the axe through the head of yet another Hurlock.

Darvis does his best to stay near them, but the horde is on every side and they soon disappear from sight. An arrow catches him in the arm- fuck, that’s the same arm as before, now he can’t even hold up his left dagger, and with his defenses down the monsters are quick to close in. Darvis grits his teeth and readies his remaining blade even as his knees go weak from fatigue and blood loss.

A resounding roar fills the tower, and he has just enough time to think, Not another sodding ogre, before it all goes dark.

 

For one blissful moment as his consciousness returns, Darvis doesn’t remember where he is. Then the memories hit him like a sledgehammer to the head.

He starts forward, hand immediately reaching for daggers that should be at his side. Panic grips him when his hands come back empty. The panic increases as he realizes something is restraining him, and he tries to jerk away-

“Be calm,” a voice says curtly, and a firm hand pushes him back into the bed.

The bed. The strangeness of waking up in a bed makes Darvis pause enough to actually take in his surroundings. He’s in a small room, tucked safely into a bed and tangled in blankets, and a dark-haired human woman is looking down at him with impatience.

“Your eyes finally open, I see,” the woman muses. “Mother will be pleased.”

It’s her golden-eyed stare that finally sparks recognition. “You’re the girl from the Wilds,” Darvis says, still confused by his new circumstances.

“I am Morrigan, lest you have forgotten,” she says brusquely, although she seems pleased that he remembers her face. “And we are in the Wilds. Mother and I have been treating your wounds.”

Darvis sits up again- slower, this time. It’s the second time in the past twenty-four hours he’s awoken confused and feeling like shit, and familiarity doesn’t make the situation any easier. At least this time he doesn’t have the taste of darkspawn blood in his mouth.

And at least Morrigan seems to be telling the truth about helping him. Darvis stretches cautiously, testing his range of motion, and is surprised to find his arm in working order. His muscles still ache and the pounding in his head hasn’t let up, but aside from that no signs of the battle remain. He doesn’t even have any new scars.

“Thanks,” he mutters, and Morrigan inclines her head slightly in return.

“You are welcome.” She moves away from the bed, although she still watches Darvis with interest. “How does your memory fare? Do you remember Mother’s rescue?”

“Rescue?” Darvis searches for the memory, but can’t recall anything beyond the swarm of darkspawn.

“I take that as a no,” Morrigan says after a moment.

“What happened?”

“The man who was to respond to your signal quit the field. The darkspawn won your battle. Those he abandoned were massacred.” She delivers the news with little emotion, and it takes a moment for the reality to sink in.

Massacred. All those fighters, thousands of people, now dead. And Darvis could have easily been one of them if not for the help of these strange women.

“You said your mother saved us? How? Why?”

“She turned into a giant bird and plucked you from atop the tower.” Morrigan’s tone is dry. Darvis doesn’t think she’s serious, but he remembers the wild look in Flemeth’s eyes and the human tales of witches, and he can’t be entirely sure. No further elaboration is given by Morrigan, who simply shrugs at Darvis and continues, “As for the why, I wonder at that myself. Mother rarely tells me her reasoning for what she does. If it were up to me, I would have saved your king. He would have fetched a higher ransom.”

The dark humor takes Darvis by surprise, and he chuckles hoarsely. “Much higher.”

A smile plays on the edges of Morrigan’s lips. “Ah, but Mother is rarely so sensible. Instead, she chooses the Wardens- and the most inexperienced Wardens, at that.”

Darvis picks up on the plural. “She rescued Alistair as well?”

Morrigan nods, but her smile slips away. “She did. He is not dealing well with the outcome of the battle. He has not ceased moping since he awoke.”

Darvis heaves a sigh. “At least he’s alive.” He pauses for a moment, then begrudgingly adds, “And the other Warden? Dwarven woman?”

“Alive as well. They are both outside with Mother.”

Darvis nods. Three survivors. Things could be worse than that. “I should join them.”

“Very well. We saved your equipment for you.” She motions towards a chest at the foot of the bed before turning to the door. “I will tell your comrades of your awakening. They have been worried for you.”

Or at least one of them has, Darvis thinks as she leaves him to dress. He throws off the blanket, taking the time to once again inspect his body for injuries and not finding a scratch. Whatever “witchy” method this woman used to heal him, Darvis likes it. He hurries to pull on his armor, wondering in the back of his mind just how long they’ll be safe here. Flemeth may have saved them, but she doesn’t seem the type to offer long-term shelter. And if the other Wardens have all died, what does that leave for Darvis on this strange surface world?

His thoughts stray to Orzammar, to Rica and Leske. They told him to leave to save his own life, and he’s already come dangerously close to screwing that up. He can only hope they’re doing a better job at staying safe than he is.

Darvis finishes dressing, and as he slides his daggers back into their rightful place at his belt, the familiar weight calms him. He’ll figure something out. He always has. It’s this thought that keeps him steady as he steps out the doorway.

Outside, Flemeth, Marja, and Alistair are gathered beneath a large tree, with Marja pacing back and forth and Alistair sitting, head bowed. All three heads turn as Darvis approaches, and Alistair leaps to his feet.

You’re alive!”

“Just as I said,” Flemeth says. “I know a thing or two of magic, after all.”

“Yeah. Um, thanks,” Darvis replies. He still isn’t sure how to react to this woman- there’s something off about her that he just doesn’t trust, but she did save his life.

Marja stops her pacing long enough to give Darvis a curt nod. “It’s good to see you on your feet.” Her attention then shifts back to Alistair. “Can we please discuss our plans now? We can’t be safe here.”

“Why not?” Darvis frowns. “Are the darkspawn-”

“The largest part of the horde has moved on,” Flemeth interjects. “You are safe. But not for long. They will notice you eventually- you are Wardens, after all.”

“Exactly.” Marja’s words are firm and sharp, a departure from the airy façade of politeness she’d displayed before. “Which is why we need to decide what we’re doing next.”

“What you’re doing? It has always been the Grey Warden’s duty to unite the lands against the Blight,” Flemeth remarks wryly. “Or did that change when I wasn’t looking?”

“’Unite the lands’ is a noble goal, but it isn’t a plan,” Marja snaps. She looks to Alistair. “You’re the Warden here with the most experience. Any suggestions?”

Alistair sighs, rubbing his head. “I… I don’t know. Duncan… the other Wardens… they’re all dead.” His voice shakes as he speaks, and Darvis notices that the man’s eyes are red.

Marja’s voice softens the slightest amount when she speaks again. “I’m sorry, Alistair. Truly. But surely there must be others. We can regroup-”

Alistair shakes his head. “No, they’re all in Orlais. They won’t risk crossing the border and breaking the peace with Ferelden. By the time we reach them, it will be too late.” His fists clench, and he makes a frustrated sound. “Why would Loghain do this? Why would he betray his king right as a Blight is about to hit?”

“Men’s hearts hold shadows darker than any tainted creature,” Flemeth says solemnly.

“That’s politics,” Marja adds, her voice hard as stone. “His reasons don’t matter. What matters is that we put a stop to his games and end the Blight.”

“Stop him? End the Blight?” Darvis repeats in shock. He’s ready to formulate a plan- a plan to get out of this mess, not further in. “In case you haven’t noticed, Princess, you don’t have an army behind you anymore. There are three of us, and the three of us going against Loghain and the darkspawn is a suicide mission.”

“It’s our duty.” To Darvis’s surprise, it’s Alistair who answers sharply. His eyes turn pleading as he looks at Darvis. “Duncan was like a father to me. I won’t let his death be in vain. But I can’t do anything on my own.”

“You also can’t do anything with three people against an entire nation.”

“Will it be an entire nation?” Marja asks. “Might there be any nobles who would protest Loghain’s decision?”

Alistair thinks for a moment. “If the truth got out about what happened at Ostagar… Arl Eamon would be the first to call for Loghain’s execution.”

“Then we should go to him. That’s a first step. Are there any other allies…”Marja trails off for a moment before her grey eyes light up. “Of course! We still have the treaties!”

Comprehension dawns on Alistair’s face. “The treaties! The mages, the Dalish, Orzammar- they’re all sworn to aid the Wardens during a Blight!”

“We track them down, invoke the treaties-”

“-and they’ll be obligated to help us-”

“-and there’s our army!”

Darvis watches and listens, a slow sense of horror creeping over him, and now he can’t stand it any longer. “Hold on just a minute! Am I the only one here who’s not completely insane?”

 


 

 

Darvis’s outburst startles Marja out of the plans running through her head.

Since the moment she awoke in Flemeth’s hut, her mind has been spiraling, attempting to develop a plan despite this latest setback and obsessing over how she could have missed the signs of Loghain’s impending betrayal. Loghain’s hostility to the Wardens, his impatience with Cailan- everything had pointed towards this outcome. And yet, she had been so focused on impressing the king that she hadn’t noticed the warnings from the man who supported him.

Hasn’t she learned anything?

She resolves to heed her lesson well, this time. She will not let her guard down again. She will not allow herself to be taken by surprise. Already, she is thinking of future maneuvers, how best to ensure they get what they need. She may still be a stranger to the surface, but this is a game she knows how to play. And with the treaties, everyone will have to listen. Orzammar will have to listen. And if she can return and win back their respect… if she can even get the armies on her side…

Well, that’s a thought for another time. For now, what matters is that the Warden’s mission is actually possible.

The anticipation is so great that she doesn’t immediately realize that Darvis has different plans.

“Maybe you two don’t remember,” he says in a voice approaching a snarl, “but we were nearly killed today. And that was just plain old darkspawn- what if that dream dragon thing had shown up? I vote we don’t get involved in this mess.”

“We’re already involved. We can’t just leave-,” Alistair begins, but Darvis cuts him off.

Why? I say we cut our losses and find a safe place to just… disappear. Let Loghain clean up his own mess.”

“He won’t,” Marja says coldly. “Loghain doesn’t know what he’s dealing with. If we don’t do something, the Blight will destroy Ferelden.”

“We’re Grey Wardens,” Alistair adds, his voice soft but insistent.

Darvis looks between the two of them with disbelieving eyes. A hard expression passes over his face, and he slowly shakes his head. “No. You two can go be Wardens if you want. Not me. I want to live.”

“You mean you want to run away.” Marja’s voice comes out harsh, but she’s past the point of caring.  “Do you even realize what the Blight will do to the world if we don’t intervene?”

“And why should I care?”

“Don’t you have any sense of honor?”

“Don’t give me that nugshit,” Darvis scoffs. “You’re not doing this for honor or nobility or whatever it is you’re telling yourself. You just need to be in charge of something. You’re not royalty anymore, so you’re playing the hero instead. Don’t pretend this is coming out of the good of your heart, and don’t drag me into it.”

Marja’s jaw clenches. How dare he accuse her of selfish intentions? Whatever her future goals may be, at least she’s not going to abandon a dying world. “Fine. Don’t consider the fact that it’s the right thing to do- consider the fact that if the Blight wipes out Ferelden, you’ll be wiped out with it. Don’t you understand? There’s nowhere you can hide from this.”

“Orzammar has survived darkspawn for centuries.”

“You’re planning on returning to Orzammar by yourself, then? I’m certain the fighters you disgraced in the Proving would relish the opportunity to welcome you back.”

Darvis’s dark eyes flash with anger, and Marja knows she’s struck a nerve. Good. Appealing to his better nature has not worked so far; she doubts he even has one. If provocation is required to get through to him, so be it.

His voice is a growl when he answers. “And just what do you think is going to happen when you go crawling to our ‘allies’ with these little treaties? You think they’ll just open their coffers to us and give us their soldiers, no strings attached? You really think this arl will believe three nobodies over Loghain and his soldiers? You have no idea how the world works outside of your pretty little castle, Princess.”

Marja steps closer to Darvis, drawing herself to her full height. “You mock me, but you do not understand that title. Since I was born, I have been trained in the arts of war and negotiations. I have faced off against politicians twice my age. I have led men into battle.  And I have survived against the darkspawn, even when left alone and defenseless in the Deep Roads. I do not fear the Blight. I plan to stop it. And I plan to use every resource to do so. Right now, unfortunately, that includes you.”

Darvis takes a step back, but his defensive posture does not change. “Right. I’m useful now,” he answers. His eyes narrow, and his fingers stray to the dagger hilts at his side. “What if I leave anyway? Are you going to stop me?”

Marja thinks of the carnage in Ostagar. She thinks of her city and of her people, who for all their pride have a lot to lose should the Blight be allowed to reach a climax. She thinks of Duncan, driving a sword into Jory’s chest in the name of the Wardens. Distantly, she is aware of the others watching- Alistair with anxious concern and Flemeth with mild curiosity- as her hand moves to the handle of her own weapon. “If I must.”

Darvis looks at her hard, perhaps searching her expression for hints of a bluff. Marja knows none will be found. There is a price for desertion-for betrayal- and if necessary she will see it paid.

As the two dwarves stare each other down, it’s Alistair who breaks the silence. “If there’s anyone you care about,” he says in a gentle, pleading tone, “even in Orzammar… this Blight will hurt them if we don’t stop it. There’s an archdemon out there. You know, you’ve seen it. And right now, there are only three people in Ferelden who can fight it.”

For the first time, Darvis’s defiant glare wavers. He looks down, his face a battlefield of anger and worry.

“The Wilds still crawl with darkspawn.” Marja looks up in surprise at the first contribution Morrgian has made to the conversation. The woman isn’t looking at them, but rather into the darkness of the surrounding trees. Her voice is indifferent as she continues. “A single traveler will be picked off quickly.”

Darvis glances at her. His shoulders slump the slightest amount, and in a low voice he says, “Doesn’t look like I have much choice, then.”

Relief blooms in Marja’s chest, but she controls her expression as she, too, relaxes her stance. “At last, you finally see reason.”

“Yeah. Reason.” Darvis lets out a long sigh. “The three of us against the armies of Ferelden and a fucking archdemon. The reasonable choice.”

“The four of you,” Flemeth corrects. Marja stares at her, but it’s Morrigan who grasps her meaning first.

What?” she asks in a sharp voice, and Flemeth gives her daughter a withering look.

“You heard me, girl. The Wardens need all the help they can get. You will go with them.”

“Have I no say in this?”

Flemeth shakes her head. “You’ve been itching to get out of the Wilds for years. Here is your chance.”

“We don’t want to force her to join us,” Darvis says, sending a dirty look in Marja’s direction, but Marja just frowns back and speaks over him.

“We do need all the help we can get. We’d be happy to accept whatever Morrigan can give us.”

Morrigan looks between the Wardens and Flemeth, her usual nonchalance falling away to shock. “Mother, this is not how I wanted this. I am not even ready-“

“You must be ready.” Flemeth’s voice is firm, inviting no further arguments. “Without you, they will surely fail, and all will perish under the Blight. Even I.”

Morrigan holds her mother’s gaze for a long moment, and some sort of understanding seems to pass between the two. “Very well, Mother. I will go.”

Flemeth’s fierce gaze swivels to Marja. “And you, Wardens? Do you understand? I give you that which I value above all in this world. I do this because you must succeed.”

“I understand,” Marja answers. Darvis huffs, but nods along.

Alistair, however, still looks unsure. When Morrigan departs to gather her things from the small house, he leans close to Marja. “This may make our situation worse. Outside of the Wilds, she’s an apostate.”

“A little illegal magic is probably useful,” Darvis counters. He’s still wearing a dour expression, but Marja appreciates that fact that he’s at least being practical.

“And we truly can’t afford to turn away help,” she adds.

Alistair doesn’t seem pleased, but he glances between the two dwarves and seems to accept that if they agree on something, it’s best not to argue. At last, Morrigan returns, a bag slung over her back and a resigned look on her face. She glances towards the sky, as if she’s scrutinizing something above them. “Let us be off, then.  I suggest a village north of here as our first destination. ‘Tis only a few days’ journey, and there will be much we need there.”

“Seems as good a place to start as any,” Marja says. “Do you know the way?”

Morrigan nods, and then looks hesitantly back at Flemeth, who watches from the doorway of her shack. She lifts her chin and calls out, “Farewell, Mother. Do not forget the stew on the fire. I would hate to return to a burned-down hut.”

Flemeth makes a dismissive noise. “’Tis far more likely you will return to see this entire area, along with my hut, swallowed up by the Blight.”

The words make Morrigan flinch. “All I meant was-”

“Yes, I know.” Flemeth smiles fondly, but the expression does not quite reach her eyes. “Do try to have fun, dear.”

Morrigan gives her mother one last, long look, then turns and begins walking through the trees. Before they follow, Alistair looks down at his companions. “Are you two going to be okay?” he asks hesitantly. “We can’t be at each other’s throats here.”

“What do you expect?” Darvis demands. He casts a sidelong glance at Marja. “I’m not happy about any of this, and I certainly don’t trust her.”

“You don’t have to be happy, and you don’t have to trust me,” Marja replies. “Just do your job.”

Darvis scowls but gives a stiff nod, and Alistair lets out a long exhale. “That will do for now, I suppose.”

“Are you coming along or not?” Morrigan calls impatiently. Darvis turns and follows her without another word. Marja follows suit, eying Darvis warily as she walks behind him. Alistair falls into step last, taking in the situation with a sigh and a furrowed brow. Together, the Wardens allow Morrigan to lead them away from the relative safety of the hut and into the darkness of the darkspawn-infested forest.

Chapter Text

The walk to Lothering is a long one.

In reality, the village is not terribly far away. The trip will take about three days, according to Morrigan, a much shorter walk than the one Darvis already took from the Frostback Mountains to Ostagar. But that first foray into the surface world was not weighed down by the same tension that now hangs over the group and makes every hour on the road feel like a year.

The first day Darvis spends in angry silence, and the first night in fitful sleep as he fights against the Blight-induced dreams. By the second day the bitterness has subsided slightly. He’s still pissed, of course, but he’s also desperate for some type of distraction. He refuses to converse with Marja- the look of utter contempt she gave him for simply wanting to live is still fresh in his mind. Alistair is harder to stay angry with; he may be siding with the princess, but even now he manages to give off an air of sincerity that simply doesn’t invite antagonism. Still, he’s a Warden, and the last thing Darvis wants to do at the moment is deal with anything Warden-related.

And so Darvis finds himself sidling up to Morrigan as they traipse down the snow-dusted road.

“Regret joining up with us yet?” There’s humor in his question, but curiosity as well. The previous night Morrigan pointedly set up her tent a good distance away from the main campfire. Even Darvis, stubborn though he may be, didn’t forsake the safety of numbers to make a point.

Morrigan regards him for a moment, her golden eyes impassive. She does not slow her pace, nor does she loosen her grip on the long, gnarled staff in her hand. “I had little choice, if you will recall.”

“I know how that feels. Sorry you got dragged in to this.”

She shrugs. “’Tis not your fault. I suppose something such as this would have happened sooner or later. Evidently, Mother wishes for me to expand the horizon of my experience beyond the Wilds.”

“So you’ve been in these Wilds all your life?” Darvis asks, casting a glance at the treetops above them. Clumps of snow collect on the thick branches, and patches of gray sky are visible through the gaps. To grow up in a world so open and unpredictable and cold isn’t something he can imagine.

His question provokes a flash of irritation from Morrigan. “What is the purpose of such questions? I do not probe you for useless information, do I?”

The sudden hostility takes Darvis by surprise. He holds his hands up in a gesture of peace. “Fine. You want to walk in silence, I’ll leave you to it.” He begins to move away, wondering if he’s simply fated to offend every surfacer he meets, when Morrigan stops him.

“Wait.” She still sounds annoyed, but now it seems more of a general exasperation than anger directed specifically at Darvis. “I did not ask to be left alone. I simply wondered from whence comes this strange curiosity.”

“How else are we going to pass the time?” Darvis asks. “Gotta talk to someone, and you’re the only who hasn’t tried to give me a speech about honor and duty. Besides, you really want to be strangers for the whole journey?”

“What a stranger does not know cannot hurt him,” Morrigan answers, a hint of humor creeping into her voice. “But fine, have it your way. Yes, I was raised in the Wilds. For many years it was only Flemeth and I.” She glances down towards the brush that creeps onto the edges of the road. “The wilderness has always been more real to me than the world of civilized men.”

“Well, I don’t know a lot about the Wilds. Or anything really. I saw my first tree only a couple weeks ago,” Darvis says. “But I can say with confidence that the world of ‘civilized men’ isn’t all that great. You didn’t miss out on much.”

Morrigan chuckles. “A sentiment I can agree with. I have ventured beyond the Wilds in the past. Never for long.  I’ve found life amongst so many other humans… overwhelming.”

“And you’re an…” Darvis scrambles for the word used back in Ostagar. “An apostate? That’s magic, right?”

Morrigan gives him an odd look, one eyebrow slightly raised. “…Yes. ’Tis the word the Chantry zealots uses for mages it cannot control.” Her tone turns defensive. “They fear any mage not leashed to their Circle shall invariably resort to blood magic and become demon-enslaved abominations. Even the ancient magics Mother passed down to me would be considered too dangerous for their sensitivities. The Chantry would see all of that knowledge simply eradicated. But those of us who prefer freedom see no reason to submit to their control.”

“Wait, back up- what’s this about ancient magic?”

“You will see in time, I do not doubt.” She smirks, drumming her fingers along her staff. “For now, suffice to say I possess a great many skills that, in the Chantry’s mind, mark me as an unnatural abomination to be put to the torch.”

Darvis can feel Morrigan’s eyes on him as she speaks, gauging and judging his reaction. He spends a moment trying to assemble the meaning of these new concepts-Chantry, Circle, ancient magic, why do surfacers have to be so complicated?- before disregarding the futile practice. “Look, I don’t know how any of this mage stuff works, or why the Chantry apparently has a stick up their arse about it. But if what you can do is useful, then use it. Seems simple enough to me.”

A sharp laugh escapes Morrigan’s lips, and she regards Darvis with a new appreciation. “Oh? You’re simply full of surprises, aren’t you? ‘Tis good to know. In any case, my apostate status should not endanger us. Only once have I been accused of being a witch. ‘Twas easy enough to avoid persecution- when it came down to my word against my accuser’s, I batted my eyelashes at the Templars and played the victim.”

For someone so reluctant to be asked questions, Morrigan certainly seems willing to speak. Darvis wonders if she’s ever had this much conversation with someone who was not her mother. Likely not, he guesses. He takes the opportunity to ask another question that’s been stewing in the back of his mind.

“What is a Witch of the Wilds, anyway? It’s more than just another way to say apostate, isn’t it?”

Morrigan gives him a dubious look. “Have you never heard the legend of Flemeth?”

Darvis huffs. “I never set foot above the surface until I got dragged into this Warden nonsense. Let’s just assume from now that if it has anything to do with magic, plants, or anything that falls out of the sky, I haven’t heard of it.”

“Fair enough, I suppose,” Morrigan says. “In that case, there is much to the legend you do not know. Shall I regale you with the story?”

Darvis nods, and Morrigan obligingly begins a long, dramatic tale. Darvis wonders just how much she is embellishing, but even if the legend is a complete work of fiction and Flemeth is nothing more than a frazzled old bat, listening to Morrigan tell it makes the time on the road less monotonous.

 


 

Marja is beginning to worry about Alistair. The man who once chatted and joked with enthusiasm has barely said more than a few sentences since leaving Flemeth’s hut. Marja hopes he isn’t upset about the argument; Alistair may have been on her side, but her methods may still have unnerved him. Not that she regrets what she did. Her actions were necessary. But she also knows that in the wake of the deaths of so many Wardens, a fight between comrades is likely the last thing Alistair needs.

There’s not much Marja can do about that, but she can at least attempt to comfort him.

“I’m sorry about Duncan,” she says to him.  It’s the second day of their travels, although the scenery hasn’t much changed- still snow and trees as far as the eye can see. She and Alistair are trailing behind Morrigan and Darvis- not too far, but at enough of a distance to have their own conversation. “I… don’t believe I’ve had the chance to say that yet. And I know you were close.”

Her words startle Alistair from a contemplative silence, and he immediately tries to cover with a forced smile and a shake of his head. “You don’t have to do that. I know you barely knew him.”

“I know he was a good man. He and the Wardens saved my life.”

The words give Alistair pause, and sorrow colors his expression. “He was. He was a good man who didn’t deserve his fate.” Alistair blinks hard as he speaks, and Marja looks away, pretending for a moment to study the landscape.

For all her time spent around people, Marja realizes that she has little experience in actually comforting somebody. Not like this. Alistair’s reaction is not that of a soldier who lost his commander.  A sudden memory occurs to her, one she hasn’t dwelled upon in years- her mother’s funeral. She and brothers had stood somberly through the ceremony, Bhelen too young to truly understand what was happening and Trian old enough to try and hide his tears. And of course her father, always strong and wise and stoic, offering words of reassurance to the people as the Queen was lowered into the tombs.

Marja glances back at Alistair. “In Orzammar, when a loved one dies, we return them to the Stone. Their spirits enter the thaig and become part of our foundation. Our strength. I know these customs are different than yours, but I believe the principle still applies. His spirit is still with you.”

Alistair smiles. “I like that. Thank you. Have you… lost someone like this before?”

“My mother, although that was long ago.” Marja pauses. “And my brother, more recently.”

It’s the first time she’s said the words to someone who doesn’t already know. Alistair offers her some sort of condolences, and Marja accepts them with a nod, but her thoughts are elsewhere. For all of her plans and her anger towards Bhelen, she realizes for the first time that she has barely spared a moment of grief for Trian. Surely he had a funeral, full of the traditional pomp and circumstance he so appreciated. Bhelen would have been there for it, certainly, had probably even made a speech. He's a good enough liar to stand in front of a crowd and pretend to mourn Trian.

At least Marja is spared the need for pretending grief. It’s a horrid thought, but one she can’t deny. There is a reason she so easily believed Trian planned to kill her. He’d hated her, had threatened her and bullied her and tried to make her life miserable for years.

But he's still her brother, isn’t he, and just as much a victim to Bhelen as she? Does he deserve more from her? Is it wrong that Marja craves vengeance not for Trian’s death, but for her own exile?

The thoughts whir around Marja’s head like the buzzing insects that populate the Wilds until Alistair hesitantly touches her shoulder. “Are you okay there? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”

Marja forces herself to breathe and put on a smile. “Nothing to apologize for. I’m fine. It’s just… family is complicated.”

Alistair looks at her with concern but doesn’t push the issue. “Anyway, thank you again. I’m glad to have you here. We got off to a rough start back there, but I’m glad we’re doing the right thing.”

Marja has no answer to that, but thankfully a distraction arrives in the form of a sudden commotion from the trees.

It begins as a distant rustling, but quickly grows in volume as a dark shape becomes visible through the forest. Marja already has her axe in hand when she realizes it’s not a darkspawn- it’s a dog. The beast crashes through the trees ahead, and as it nears the group Marja recognizes it as the recovering warhound from Ostagar.

The dog pays her and Alistair little attention, instead racing straight for an extremely alarmed Darvis. Darvis lets out a small yelp and takes a step back, but rather than attacking, the dog sits himself in front of the dwarf and barks happily. The animal looks quite pleased with itself- as much as a dog can, anyway- but Darvis only stares at it. “What the blazes?

 


 

“We could always just eat him.”

The suggestion makes Morrigan chuckle. “I fear the Fereldans would view such a thing as even worse than my apostasy. Watch your tongue, or you may find yourself at the end of a pitchfork.”

“Eh, he doesn’t look like he would taste that good anyway,” Darvis concedes. Despite his lack of enthusiasm towards Nug, the dog has continued to trot faithfully at his heels ever since he joined their little group.

The name fits him well. Now that he’s decided he likes Darvis, the creature does actually resemble the description of ‘nug with fur’. A slobbery, oversized nug that can tear into darkspawn with teeth and claws, but the similarity is still there. And Nug seems to like the name.

Marja doesn’t. She’s already made a few attempts to rename the beast- ridiculous things like Moroc or Heidrun. But her ideas come too late, and the mabari now refuses to answer to anything but the name Darvis has chosen. Even with all of Alistair’s talk of ‘imprinting’, Darvis finds it odd that the dog favors him so much. Truth be told, he minds it less than he lets on. It’s comforting to have a companion with whom there’s no risk of a sudden knife in his back.

Which isn’t to say that Morrigan is unpleasant company. Far from it. She humors his many questions about the Wilds, pointing out which plants along the road can be used for healing and which are poisonous. Darvis grabs a few of the latter- something like that always comes in handy eventually.

When Darvis’s questions begin to stray towards more personal matters, however, Morrigan deflects with a sarcastic comment, a lengthy tangent on arcane matters, or- on rare occasions- with a teasing, nearly flirtatious smile that does a better job of distracting Darvis than it should.

She gives him one such smile after he makes another inquiry about her time with Flemeth. “You are very cute to ask so many questions.”

The words are taunting, with a hint of mockery floating beneath her tone. Darvis can play that game. “And you are cute when you’re evasive.”

The answer earns him a derisive smirk. “Really? Perhaps we should be wrapped in ribbons and adorned with flowers, so cute are we.” She shakes her head. “So many questions, you. Surely you do not wish to hear more of my tales? What of your family? You’ve said little enough of them yet. You have a mother, do you not? Few are abominations of legend, ‘tis true, but I find myself curious nonetheless.”

Darvis’s light mood darkens, and a scowl pulls at the corner of his mouth. It’s a reasonable inquiry, he supposes- she’s been sharing information of herself. It’s only fair he do the same. “My mother is much less interesting than yours, I’m afraid. She spends most of her days drunk and angry. Or, she did. But I don’t expect much has changed since I last saw her.”

“Ah.” Morrigan’s expression goes somber for a brief moment. “You have my sympathies, for what it is worth.”

Darvis shrugs. “Don’t bother. I’ve been luckier than many in Dust Town. I’ve always had Rica- my sister. She was the one who raised me, really.”

“And what of her?” Morrigan asks. “I confess, I know little of what ‘tis like to have a sister, but I have…wondered.”

The sensation of homesickness tightens like a knot in Darvis’s gut as he tries to adequately describe Rica. “She’s the responsible one in the family. Good with people, more than I ever was. Tougher than people think, but still kind. The only person I knew who was like that. And she always believed that we could be better.” He pauses. “That I could be better.”

Darvis wonders what Rica would say about the mess he’s in. He wonders what she would say if she knew he’d tried to leave the Wardens, after she was so proud of him for joining. He thinks he knows, and the answer adds a small weight of guilt on his conscience.

“A kind heart does not come to much use in this world,” Morrigan says.

“No, it doesn’t,” Darvis agrees. “But she has one anyway.” He sighs and turns his eyes towards the sky. “I probably won’t ever get the chance to see her again.”

“Such a vote of confidence in our abilities,” Morrigan says in a dry tone- attempting, Darvis thinks, to move away from the sentimentality of the subject at hand. “With every passing hour I grow more grateful to have joined you.”

Darvis snorts. “Heh. Maybe I’m being pessimistic. Or maybe I’m right, and we’re both marching to our graves. But I am glad you’re here.”

“Glad to have me on a mission you’ve described as likely doomed?” When Darvis tries to stammer an answer, Morrigan only smirks again. “Not that I lack appreciation for your comment. Thank you. And I certainly have no intention of dying. So long as you can keep up, you needn’t worry about it either.”

Darvis studies Morrigan for a moment. He hasn’t quite managed to figure out all of her moods. There’s the prickly indifference she carried at their first meeting, the snappy contempt she shows to Alistair, and the occasional friendly teasing she now uses on Darvis. And then, occasionally, there are moments like this.

Moments that disappear as quickly as they come. Morrigan glances away, her posture straightening, and when she speaks again her voice is brusque. “Come along, then. We should quicken our pace before the ground opens up and swallows us, yes?”

Darvis is almost positive she’s being metaphorical- he has developed some ability to read her shifting tones- but he hurries his steps anyway. Just in case that’s something that actually does happen on the surface.

 


 

“-and you’ve no idea how to make more Wardens?”

Alistair shakes his head, a thoughtful frown on his face. “I’m only a junior in the order, myself. Exactly how the Joining works, I can’t say. It involves lyrium and magic and it’s quite complicated- that’s as much as I know.”

It’s unfortunate, but no less than what Marja expects. The simplest solution to her current predicament would be to use the Rite of Conscription on as many soldiers as possible- make up in numbers what they lack in experience. Alas, nothing is ever simple. “Then we shall make do with the allies we have.”

They’ve spent the day going over their predicament. Alistair veers off the subject at times, talking about old times with the Wardens and with Duncan. The subject makes him emotional, but talking about it seems to be doing him some good. Marja doesn’t mind listening; it’s better than talking about herself at the moment. But as they get closer to their destination, she attempts to steer him back to important matters.

 “Tell me about this Arl Eamon,” she presses.

“He’s a good man, and loyal to the king.” Alistair’s voice is full of conviction, but Marja is still wary of putting her trust in this human stranger.

“You know him well?” she asks.

Alistair pauses, as if trying to decide what to say, but Marja waits silently and at last he lets out a breath and says, “Yes, actually. He raised me. Oh, how do I explain this…” He hesitates for a moment, then says his next words quickly. “I’m a bastard- and before you make any smart comments, I mean the fatherless kind. My mother was a serving girl and died when I was young.”

The words come out in a rush, and once they’re out, Alistair looks relieved. He continues, “Arl Eamon isn’t my father, but he took me in anyhow.”

Marja frowns. “If he isn’t your father, who is? Do you know?”

Alistair shakes his head. “He died even before my mother did. It isn’t important.”

“Of course it is!” The callousness with which Alistair dismisses his ancestry leaves Marja scandalized. An arl doesn’t just take in any orphan on the street out of the kindness of his heart. At least one of his parents must be important. And if it isn’t his mother… “Was he a noble? Are you a noble?”

“No!” Alistair's look of panic is almost amusing. “I’m a Warden, and even if I wasn’t, I’m just a bastard.”

“But if your father-” Marja stops herself, remembering that humans have an odd way of doing these things. “But I’m thinking in terms of dwarven customs, of course. In Orzammar, any son of a noble man is a noble as well, no matter who the other parent is. But humans have a fixation on inheritance through marriage, do they not?”

“I… suppose you could put it that way.” Alistair is blushing now, and obviously desperate to change the subject. “Anyhow. Eamon eventually married, and Isolde- his wife- didn’t like having me around. There were always rumors that he was my father, you see. She did everything she could to make my life miserable at Redcliffe, and eventually succeeded in convincing Eamon to send me away. That’s how I ended up with the Templars.”

Marja tilts her head as she listens to the story, imagining how a young Alistair must have felt, being pushed out of the only home he’d ever known. “I’m sorry.”

Alistair chuckles. “I was angry at the time. I remember I had this amulet- my mother’s, one of the few things I had of her, with Andraste’s symbol on it. I was so furious at being sent away I threw it against the wall. It shattered into about a million pieces.” Alistair shakes his head at the memory. “Stupid thing to do. But looking back, everything worked out, in a way. I ended up with the Wardens.”

“It still seems strange to me,” Marja says thoughtfully. “If this had all happened in Orzammar, you’d be a noble.”

“Thank the Maker I’m not from Orzammar, I suppose.”

Marja stares at him, aghast. “You truly would not want to be counted amongst the nobility?”

Alistair laughs. “Absolutely not. I don’t mean to offend- I’m sure it was well enough for you. But I can barely take care of myself, let alone rule over others.” He pauses, seemingly warring with himself for a moment before asking, “What is that like, anyway? Being in line for the throne? Everybody seems to think it’s all grand, what with the adoring public and shiny crown and the best cheeses important from around the world. But it can’t be that easy, can it?”

Marja considers his question. She’s never been asked what it's like to be royalty- it’s simply what she is. “It’s a lot to handle, that much is true. The crown is a heavy weight. But knowing you can bear it well, and use it to lead your people to better times…it’s the highest honor one could ask for. And of course, that’s in addition to the typical perks that come with authority. It may sound vain, but I do miss taking hot baths every night.”

Alistair doesn’t seem convinced. “But surely there are downsides? What would you change, if you could?”

Marja shakes her head- despite her current estranged state from her city, she knows it’s where she belongs. “The only thing I would change is my current state of exile.”

“Oh, come on. Nothing? Boring meetings, itchy clothes- nothing?”

With a huff, Marja casts her mind for an answer to satisfy Alistair. Certainly, there are droning Assembly meetings and dangerous political rivals, but such things don’t stick in her mind. Instead… “Well, I suppose if there’s something I prefer about the surface…I won’t have to get married here.”

Alistair’s eyebrows shoot up. “Married? I thought it was us humans who had the obsession with that kind of thing.”

“In terms of legitimacy of heirs, yes. But ties between houses still carry weight in Orzammar.” Marja sighs. “If it were a purely political alliance, I would not mind. I’m not completely unreasonable. But as an Aeducan I would at some point be expected to carry on the bloodline. And I- it’s just not something I’m interested in. Not with any of the hopeful suitors that had their sights set on me.”

“Noble men aren’t your type?”

Marja hesitates. She’s made her distaste for marriage known before, but never the true reasons. She suspects Gorim knew, or had guessed, although she has never said the words aloud before. No matter her personal feelings, it has never been worth risking the opportunity of a valuable alliance. But on the surface… what does it matter? “Men in general aren't my type, actually.”

“Ah.” Alistair rubs awkwardly at his neck. “Well, for what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to not want to marry someone you don’t care for.”

A chuckle escapes from Marja’s throat, and all of a sudden she feels a bit lighter. “You’d make a horrible noble.”

“Of course I would,” Alistair says with a grin. “But you’d still return to Orzammar, wouldn’t you? Despite everything?”

“In a heartbeat.” Marja doesn’t know how to convey to this human just how essential Orzammar is to her. The arching stone ceiling above, warmth from the rivers of lava radiating from below, the knowledge that the Ancestors are watching over her from the Stone… it’s her home. “And I will, one day. I know it. When I do, I’ll be stronger for the trials I’ve gone through.”

“That’s… one way to look at it, I suppose.” Alistair’s face is unsure, and he seems about to say something else when Morrigan calls back to them.

“It seems we have nearly arrived.” She motions ahead, and in the distance Marja can make out an expanse of fields, and just beyond, a cluster of buildings. “Lothering awaits.”

Chapter Text

“Pretty as a painting, isn’t it?” Alistair remarks as their group shuffles down the well-tread dirt roads of Lothering.

“You must have some ugly paintings on the surface,” Darvis answers. There’s no point in hiding the fact that he’s not exactly impressed. He supposes the town might be fair enough under normal circumstances, even with the ever-present grey clouds and cold wind. But under the shadow of the darkspawn invasion, the town just seems… well, sad.

Humans wearing ragged clothing and ragged expressions drift through the town around them, seeking transportation or shelter or food. Most ignore the group, but a few give them sharp, suspicious glances, eyes sweeping over the blue and silver of the Wardens’ armor. Darvis scowls darkly in return and crosses his arms across the griffon emblazoned on his chest.

The bandits had been the first warning sign. They didn’t give the Wardens any real trouble; after the carnage at Ostagar, the small group of overconfident humans hassling travelers for a few coppers had almost been laughable. They were driven off quickly enough, but before sending them running Marja had extracted some information from their leader, and that was the troubling part. Lothering, it seems, has been overrun with refugees fleeing the Blight ever since the Battle of Ostagar had been lost due to the treachery of the Grey Wardens.

It’s a ridiculous rumor, but judging from the looks being thrown their way, it’s one that at least some people believe. Darvis supposes he should be grateful that the townspeople and refugees have their own, more immediate problems to focus on. Still, he doesn’t argue when Marja suggests they don their cloaks help them blend in.

Despite their need to stay inconspicuous, they still need supplies. Darvis hangs back as Marja and Alistair approache a man standing by a cart laden with goods. Marja walks with a confident air, but Darvis is damned if he knows what she plans on doing. The group has some money between the four of them, but not nearly enough for the kinds of supplies they’ll need on the road.

The thought makes Darvis’s fingers twitch. He can get them what they need easily enough; the people here are distracted and not on the lookout for pickpocketers.

They’re also refugees fleeing the destruction brought on by the Blight. The nagging, guilt-bringing voice at the back of his head annoys Darvis. They’re trying to stop the Blight, aren’t they? Greater good, noble purpose, and all that? if they want to save Ferelden, they’re going to need to eat at some point. Still, Darvis’s conscience gets the better of him and he occupies his hands by scratching at Nug’s ears. The dog, still following faithfully at his every step, grunts happily at the attention.

“You want me to aid in your war profiteering?”

Darvis heaves a sigh. At some point while he was lost in thought, Marja’s discussion with the merchant seems to have turned into an argument. Her voice is high and judgmental, and the merchant glares sullenly at her as he answers. A woman in a long golden robe has also joined the fuss, looking just as irate.

“I have to charge something for my wares. It’s business!”

Reluctantly, Darvis moves in next to Marja. “What’s going on?” he whispers, eyeing the angry man.

Marja breathes deeply and shakes her head. “A dispute over prices. One moment.” She turns back to the man, her expression rearranged into a smile, and when she speaks her voice is equal parts pleasant and pleading. “Nobody is disputing that, good sir. But surely you see that it is unscrupulous to raise prices so high in times of such desperate need? I’m certain a compromise could be reached- lower your prices to a reasonable amount, and with the cooperation of the Chantry, your goods could be more easily distributed to your customers.”

The man scowls at Marja, but his posture slackens as he sighs in acquiescence. “Fine. But there’ll be no discount for you lot, and certainly no payment.”

Marja smiles warmly and thanks the man, but Darvis has stopped paying attention. He stares at Marja, unsure whether to be angry or simply dumbfounded. “You turned down a payment?”

An annoyed frown forms on the princess’s lips. “He was taking advantage of the people here. I wasn’t about to help him.”

“And is it our job now to solve every insipid quarrel we come across?” Morrigan asks, her tone echoing Darvis’s annoyance.

“Hey!” Alistair steps defensively between Marja and Morrigan. “She did a good thing! Is the idea of that so repulsive to you?”

“That’s not the point,” Darvis cuts in. “The point is, we need supplies, too, and supplies cost money. More money than we have.”

“Excuse me?” Darvis jumps as the robed woman, still hovering nearby, interrupts the group’s argument. “You've already helped us by reasoning with that man, but with so many refugees coming through, the Chantry is in need of as much aid as it can get. We have some jobs available, if you’re up to the task. I can show you to the Chanter’s Board.”

Darvis doesn’t know what the old woman is talking about, and Morrigan’s expression only darkens at her words, but Alistair lights up. “Ah! The Chanter’s Board! Perfect!” He looks eagerly at Darvis and Marja. “And with so many people passing through, the Chantry will surely have news of… of recent events.”

“What’s a Chantry Board?” Darvis mutters to Morrigan.

“An opportunity to run errands for the betterment of mankind.” Her words drip with sarcasm.

“Seems like a waste of our time.”

“…and for a few coppers.”

“Ah. That’s better.”

If Marja can hear the exchange between Darvis and Morrigan, she ignores it. After a moment of considering the offer, she nods. “Yes, that’s a good idea.”

“You may go the Chantry,” Morrigan says curtly. “I shall wait for you here.” Her fingers drum against the staff she uses as a walking stick, and Darvis remembers her words about the Chantry and its stance on apostates. The robed woman’s eyes narrow, and Darvis quickly tries to distract her.

“Er, that’s a good idea. We have a lot of ground to cover. You two check out the Chantry, and Morrigan and I can explore the rest of the town.” He glances at Morrigan. “You mentioned a tavern? There's bound to be work there. Or at least some news.”

“I don’t like the idea of splitting up,” Marja murmurs, lips pursed, and her eyes dart down towards her own blue armor hidden behind the folds of her cloak.

Darvis rolls his eyes. “Are you worried we’ll run into more terrifying bandits, Princess? The last ones did leave us all quaking in our boots.”

His quips earn no reaction other than a shrug. “If you’re certain you can handle yourselves, then fine. Gather what news you can and meet back with us in an hour’s time.” And with that she strides away, following the robed woman through the meager crowd.

Darvis glances down at Nug. “You have any ideas for making money, boy?” The dog only pants in reply. Darvis turns to Morrigan next, only to find that the woman is already well on her way down the road. She pauses to shoot a look back at him.

“Are you coming, or not? Let’s see what we can find in this drab town.”

 

The stench of alcohol washes over Darvis as he and Morrigan step through the doors of the tavern, and his stomach lurches in response. It reminds him of home in ways he doesn’t wish to dwell on, so instead of dwelling he pushes through the crowded main room until he reaches the bar. The bar, like everything else in the place, is scaled for human use, and Darvis has to stretch himself as tall as he can in order to peer over it.

The man behind the bar eyes him warily. Darvis wonders what he makes of the sight before him: Morrigan, in her Wilds attire, Nug, drooling on the floor, and himself, the only dwarf in the tavern. Darvis pulls his cloak tighter around his shoulders and tries not to look too much like a man trying to hide something. “We’re finding ourselves a bit short on coin. Know where we can find some work around here?”

“Everybody’s short on coin these days,” the man answers shortly. “What are you, a smith?”

“A smith?”  Darvis repeats in bafflement. Behind him, Morrigan snorts a laugh. “No, I’m not a sodding smith, I’m a-”

“A warden.”

Darvis turns towards the sound of the new voice and groans in annoyance. Their new friend is a knight, outfitted in mail and wearing the same expression Darvis used to see on the city guards. Worst of all, he has friends- three men in similar garb, hanging behind him. The man who spoke grins stupidly. “That’s what you are, innit? Been lookin’ all over for Wardens, you know. Heard they’d be wearin’ silver armor. Heard one of ‘em was a dwarf with markings on his face.”

Darvis raises an eyebrow. “And you think you’ve found this Warden here?” He glances at Morrigan. “She doesn’t look much like a dwarf to me.”

The man strides forward and reaches out to grab Darvis by the arm, but Darvis sees him coming. He ducks under the arm and whirls around, evading the man’s grasp. He prepares for another assault, but before the man can move any closer Nug is between them, snarling with hackles raised.

Darvis grins. “Oh, you meant me.”

The man scowls and reaches for his sword, but is stopped by a sudden flash of yellow and orange. Darvis steps back in surprise as a woman, clad in Chantry robes with short orange hair to match, darts between him and the knights.

“Gentlemen, please! Surely we’ve all seen enough death due to the Blight; let us not add more violence to these troubling times.” She speaks with an accent unfamiliar to Darvis, and her voice is soft and cajoling. But despite her gentle tone, she stands firmly and unafraid before the knight with one hand on his sword.

“Step aside, Sister,” the knight growls. “This man is a Warden. He and any who associate with him are traitors. You protect him, so are you.”

He’s not lying, Darvis can tell that much. With one hand easing Nug back, he says, “You may want to listen to him, lady. This could get bloody.”

The woman doesn’t seem concerned. “I have seen blood before. And I will not stand aside while these men harass those who do not deserve it.”

“Enough talk!” The knight draws his sword at last. “Take the Warden into custody. Kill the Sister and anyone else in our way!”

Darvis anticipates the incoming blow and rushes to meet it, Nug at his side. He meets the soldier’s steel with his own dagger, pushing him back as Nug sinks his teeth into the man’s ankle. Another soldier approaches from the side- and then halts, his legs suddenly encased in brittle ice. Darvis chances a look over his shoulder to see Morrigan, staff in hand, readying another spell.

Darvis’s attention is pulled back to the battle as the remaining soldier hacks violently in his direction with a longsword. Darvis manages to sidestep the attack, and turns to respond with his own dagger only to find that another dagger is already at the soldier’s throat.

The Chantry woman, whom Darvis had assumed would flee once the fighting started, is standing behind the soldier, one arm holding him in place while the other holds a dagger against his neck. “I did ask very politely for you to leave,” she says. Her gaze slides over to Darvis. “I apologize. Lothering is usually much more hospitable to travelers.”

The ways of the Chantry are still new to Darvis, but he's fairly certain it's not typical for the followers to be carrying blades. He stares at the redheaded woman still holding a knife to the man's throat and asks, “Who are you?”

 


 

“Do you think the others will be alright on their own?” Marja asks Alistair as they follow the worn dirt road to the Chantry. The towering building is the grandest in town, which is to say that it is built of sturdy stone rather than wood and the roof doesn’t seem to be leaking. Despite the lack of grandeur, the place is dry and clean, which is more than Marja can say for herself. She straightens her posture and does her best to brush back her hopelessly travel-mussed hair as she crosses through the doorway.

“How much trouble can they get into in Lothering?” Alistair answers lightly. “I’m just glad for a few minutes away from Morrigan. I swear, I can feel her glaring at me all the time.” He glances down at Marja, and she must look concerned because he quickly adds, “And they have Nug to watch over them!”

Nug. The ridiculous name still makes Marja roll her eyes. “Are you saying that between the three of them, the mabari is the most responsible?”

Alistair gives her an apologetic shrug, and Marja sighs. She knows it’s efficient, but she doesn’t like being split up like this. Best to get the information they came here for, and be on their way, no matter how warm and dry Lothering’s Chantry may be.

In addition to the many women wearing sun-colored robes, the Chantry is full of refugees and townsfolk either praying or searching for some kind of help. “So many people,” Marja murmurs as she and Alistair move through the crowds, looking for someone with authority.

“I know,” Alistair says solemnly. “All running from the darkspawn. The Blight has taken too much already.”

Marja wishes dearly that they had the time to stop and help them all, but she knows they don’t. They can stay long enough to fulfill some tasks from the Chantry Board, and hopefully that will provide some aid, but eventually they must continue on to Redcliffe.

The refugees are not the only people to catch Marja’s eye. She nudges Alistair and motions to a soldier clad in heavy armor, a blazing sword engraved on her shoulders. She is not the only one in such armor- Marja can count at least three more from where she stands. “Who are they?”

“Templars,” Alistair answers, mouth twisting into a frown. “They’re usually all in the Circle Tower, but they go anywhere the Chantry tells them. I suppose they’re here to help the refugees, but if they’ve heard rumors that Wardens committed treason…well, they’re not a very understanding lot. No sense of humor, either.”

“Noted. It sounds like we should avoid them for now. At least until we get these rumors straightened out.” Marja cranes her neck, searching for someone, preferably unarmed, who looks like they may be able to provide reliable news. Her attention is caught by an older human, clad in steel like the Templars but without the Chantry symbol on his breastplate. He bears a different coat of arms, one Marja does not recognize. “What about him? Do you know that sigil?”

Alistair follows her gaze, and instantly perks up. “I should hope so! That’s Ser Donall, of Redcliffe!” He begins walking over, but Marja hesitates.

“Are you sure-”

“He’s one of Arl Eamon’s men. I’ve known him since I was a boy. We can trust him.” Alistair’s expression is confident, and so Marja takes a breath and approaches the knight alongside him.

“Ser Donall?” Alistair calls with the warmth of familiarity, and the man turns to face them with a puzzled expression.

“I beg your pardon…” his words trail off as he takes in the sight before him with wide eyes. “Alistair?! By the Maker, how- I thought you were dead!” He claps Alistair on the shoulder with a grin, all while Marja stands back with watchful eyes.

“Not yet!” Alistair replies with cheer. The smile slips from his face when after a moment he adds, “No thanks to Teyrn Loghain.”

“Loghain,” Donall growls. He shakes his head, and Marja’s caution subsides at the sight of his displeasure with the Teyrn. “I knew I smelled a lie in his story. Accusing the Wardens- accusing you- of treason… if only Arl Eamon were well, he’d set him straight quickly enough.”

Marja frowns. “If he were well?”

Donall looks between the two Wardens and sighs heavily. “It seems there’s quite a bit you haven’t heard yet,” he says. “Let me start with telling you why I’m here.”

 

“Well, things just a lot more complicated,” Alistair sighs as he and Marja trudge away from the Chantry. “Arl Eamon would help us if he could, of that I’m certain, but…”

“…but he can’t do much in his current state,” Marja finishes grimly. “Which is a shame because we need all the help we can get if Loghain is already spreading his lies to the entire kingdom.” She tries to keep her temper in check, but the accusation has set her blood boiling. The Grey Wardens have been officially declared traitors to the king and enemies of Ferelden, and with Loghain in charge of the kingdom’s armies and his daughter sitting on the throne, the truth could easily stay hidden forever.

But Marja won’t let that happen. Just like Bhelen, she thinks to herself. Let him think he’s won. But traitors and liars will get their due in the end.

Such thoughts keep her occupied until they reach their meeting point, a narrow stone bridge where Darvis, Morrigan, and Nug are already waiting- along with a woman Marja has never seen before. The dog bounds up to her eagerly, and Marja gives the beast a friendly scratch behind the ears. Morrigan seems happy to see them as well, which surprises Marja until she realizes that their arrival is an excuse to end the conversation she is having with the unknown woman.

“Finally,” Morrigan says, quickly standing, her back to the woman. “Let us be off, before we pick up any more fools to add to this journey.”

Marja shoots a questioning look in Darvis’s direction, and he holds up his hands in a gesture of innocence. “She offered! Apparently we’re all wanted criminals now, but she’s on our side and she can use a blade-”

“Although I prefer arrows,” the woman cuts in, a lilted accent immediately evident. “And my name is Leliana.” She nods her head courteously at Marja and Alistair. “And you must be the other Wardens, no? I am here to aid you in your quest.”

“Oh.” Alistair’s surprised tone echoes Marja’s thoughts perfectly. “Nice to meet you?”

“Tell them who sent you,” Darvis urges, with a hint of a chuckle underneath the words.

Leliana hears it, as well, and she frowns at him. “It is not a joke, I assure you. I have been sent to help you by the Maker.” She smiles kindly at the Wardens, and when her words are met with only confused silence, she presses on. “I had a dream, you see- a vision. I am meant to be here.”

Marja studies the woman intently as she speaks. She certainly believes what she’s saying, of that Marja has no doubt. And she knows little enough of the humans' Maker; perhaps this is normal behavior for religious folk on the surface. Alistair’s skeptical expression, however, suggests this is something else.

“And where did you find her, exactly?” Marja asks, and Darvis nods in the direction of the road leading north.

“She helped us deal with some of Loghain’s men in the tavern. I told you, she can use a blade. Also, we’re banned from the tavern now.”

“Loghain’s men?” Leliana’s oddness and the fact that Marja knew she couldn’t leave Darvis and Morrigan alone for an hour without supervision are both concerning matters, but Marja puts them to the back of her mind for now. “Here?”

Darvis shrugs. “We took care of them. But a lot of people saw that fight. We got some work offers, which is good because we need money-” he shoots a pointed look at Marja- “but-”

“But word will reach Loghain of our location,” Marja sighs.

Darvis nods. “I hope this Arl of Alistair’s can give us some help, because we’re going to need backup.”

“Let’s hope he manages to stay alive long enough to give it,” Marja mutters.

Alistair winces. “At least we still have the treaties. We have allies, even if Eamon…” he sighs softly and rubs his temple. A pang of guilt runs through Marja’s chest.

“I’m sorry, Alistair,” she says. “I didn’t mean to speak so harshly. We should still go to Redcliffe- perhaps his illness is not as bad as we believe.”

Alistair smiles at the support, but shakes his head. “No, you have the right of it. I should be prepared for the worst. If his knights have been sent out searching for Andraste’s ashes, the situation must be desperate.”

“Andraste’s Ashes?” Leliana repeats with wonder in her voice.

“They’re just chasing rumors,” Marja says firmly. She can see the reverence in Leliana’s face, and she doesn’t want to get distracted by fantastical tales of magical healing granted by the ashes of the humans’ holy woman. What they need is actual, tangible resources. Speaking of… “So are you coming with us then, Leliana? As you can see, we’re in no position to turn away aid.”

Leliana clasps her hands together in excitement. “Yes. I swear to you, I shall do all in my power to help you end this Blight before it devours the world.”

Marja tilts her head, taking a moment to study the woman before her. With her bright robes and talk of visions, she doesn’t seem particularly intimidating. “It will be a dangerous task. We’re going to need more than prayers, Sister.”

A soft giggle escapes Leliana’s lips. “I assure you, I can handle danger.” There’s an edge to her smile now, a sharpness that wasn’t there before, and Marja finds herself believing that statement.

“Very well, then. We can stay for a day to gather what supplies we can, and then we’ll set off for Redcliffe.”

 

Lothering itself is crowded enough with refugees, so the Wardens and their allies decide to make camp on the edge of the village. Marja doesn’t allow herself to complain, but she can’t help missing nights in the Orzammar palace as she contemplates another night of sleeping on the ground. Her daydreams of hot baths and soft bedsheets are interrupted by what may be the strangest sight of the day.

On the side of the road, at the very northern edge of the village, sits a large iron cage. Inside the cage sits a silent, grey person larger than any man Marja has ever seen. He doesn’t move, doesn’t make any noise, and for a moment Marja is uncertain whether he is indeed a living creature, until Darvis follows her gaze and says loudly, “What is that?”

The man’s eyes shoot open, and he turns to look at the group.

“That is a qunari,” Leliana says quietly. “One of the giants from Par Vollen. I heard he was captured after slaughtering a family in their home.” Her mouth forms a thin, disapproving line. “He was left here for punishment. What he did was awful, but leaving him here for the elements and the darkspawn… I cannot say it is any better.”

“This is what the merciful Chantry does,” Morrigan adds with venom. “Locks people up like animals. And they call apostates barbaric.”

Marja nods, studying the man for a moment longer before striding closer until she’s standing directly in front of the cage. The qunari doesn’t say anything, so Marja takes the initiative. “Hello. May I ask your name?”

The man’s eyes narrow. His skin is an odd tone- something between bronze and grey. Up close, he seems even taller. “You mock me.” His voice is deep and somber, but the accusation lacks sting.

“It is not mockery, I assure you. Merely manners.”

This seems to amuse the qunari. “That is something I have not come to expect in these lands.” His eyes flicker to the others behind Marja. “In answer to your companion’s question, I am a Sten of the Beresaad. You may call me as such, although it will not matter for long. I will be dead soon enough.”

“You… are a Sten, or that is your name?”

The man- Sten- just stares at her. “Why do you speak to me?”

“I was wondering the same thing,” Darvis mutters.

Marja motions at him to be quiet and turns back to Sten. “I'm curious about you. Are you guilty of the crimes of which you are accused?”

For the first time, Sten looks away. “Whatever I’ve done, my life is forfeit now. I do not deny my actions. This is why I surrendered myself. Death shall be my atonement.”

Marja doesn’t know what to think. He doesn’t seem like a killer- or, no, that’s not quite right. He certainly doesn’t deny the charges. But he doesn’t seem like a remorseless murderer who deserves to be left out as darkspawn bait.

“Come with us,” she says impulsively. “We are on a mission to stop the Blight. I could convince the villagers to free you. Let this be your atonement.”

For the first time, Sten regards the group with interest. “You are Grey Wardens, then? I have heard legends of the Warden’s strength and skill…although I suppose not every legend is true.”

Darvis chuckles. “Sure, why not? He seems like a great guy.” He glances sideways at Marja. “You really sure about this?”

“I am. Alistair?”

Alistair tilts his head, sizing up the man in the cage. “I wouldn’t say I’m sure, but it doesn’t feel right to just leave him locked up.”

Darvis shrugs. “All right, then. Don’t bother trying to convince the villagers- I got this.” He steps up to the cage and, after a few seconds of fidgeting with the lock, the door swings open. Sten steps out, still eying the group with disbelief. Marja gives him a welcoming smile.

“You’re with us now. Ready to stop the Blight?”

Darvis laughs loudly. “We’ve already got three Wardens who barely know what they’re doing, an illegal witch, and a crazy Chantry sister.”

Nug barks indignantly. “And a dog,” Darvis amends quickly. “With the addition of a murdering giant, Ferelden has nothing to worry about.”

Chapter Text

“Are you really a dwarf?”

Darvis blinks in surprise. Behind him, Leliana laughs at the question, but the child who asked it just stares up at Darvis with serious eyes. He’s one of the many refugees housed in the Lothering Chantry, where the Wardens and their accompanying riffraff have been running errands all morning. Their latest job consists of tracking down the locals still unaccounted for after recent darkspawn attacks- one of whom is the small boy’s mother.

Darvis shrugs. “Either that, or a very strange-looking elf.”

The kid giggles shyly. “I’ve never met a dwarf before! Father says you live under a giant mountain in the dark, and that you make weapons and lyrium all day, and you only come outside to sell things because you’re very greedy and like a lot of gold-”

“And I was told all humans go mad from being sun-touched and end up falling into the sky.” Darvis interrupts. “You can’t believe everything you hear.” The kid giggles again and seems about to ask more questions. Darvis quickly cuts him off. “Can you just tell me where you last saw your mother?”

The boy’s face falls. “By the river. It was dark and I got lost and she said if I ever got lost to find a Chantry and she’d meet me there. Is she going to be here soon?” His voice wavers as he asks the question. The child is young, but old enough to know that he should be worried.

“I’m going to go look for her,” is all Darvis says, but it’s enough to restore a smile to the child’s face. Darvis wonders how long it will last.

“I wish we could do more,” Marja sighs as they leave the Chantry.

Darvis crosses his arms, still trying to shake off the guilty feeling in his gut brought on by the boy’s hopeful expression. “Unless you have some way to raise people from the dead, I don’t know what more you want to do.”

“You know what I mean,” she snaps.

“And we don’t know for sure she’s dead,” Leliana adds. Darvis raises an eyebrow, and even Marja looks skeptical at that.

“Perhaps you’re right,” the princess says anyway, forcing a smile in Leliana’s direction. Darvis scowls and walks ahead without a word. Morrigan and Sten wait outside the Chantry. Nobody in the village has yet protested the presence of the Wardens or their actions in freeing the qunari. Darvis supposes word of their fight with Loghain’s men has spread. Nothing like a public show of violence to get people to stop asking questions. Still, bringing Sten into the actual Chantry might be pushing their luck a little too far.

“We got another job,” Darvis announces as he pushes through the doors.

Sten gives him a sullen glare. “Why are we still here? I was under the impression the Wardens would be combating darkspawn, not wild dogs and roadside bandits. We are wasting time.”

“By all means, feel free to go out on your own.” Morrigan’s tone is scathing when she answers. “I’m certain the darkspawn will appreciate the easy meal.”

Darvis is actually grateful when Marja and Leliana catch up and provide a distraction in the form of Marja quickly ordering everyone about. “We’re going to the river north of town. Keep an eye out for any more wolves- their pelts sell for a decent price. Alistair should have gathered enough elfroot by now, we can meet up with him on the way.”

As usual, Darvis ends up trailing at the end of the group as they walk through Lothering. To his surprise, Marja slows her pace and falls in step next to him. “Is Morrigan angry with Sten, now, too?”

Darvis is caught off guard by the question. “Why are you asking me?”

“Because you’re the only one Morrigan seems to be willing to hold a conversation with,” Marja answers, her expression cross. “And because I need to know who she hates so I can try to prevent in-fighting. It’s a challenge, you know, since she already hates both Alistair and Leliana.”

For a moment Darvis wants to refuse to answer simply out of bitterness. But eventually he relents and says, “Sten doesn’t hold a high opinion of mages. Of course she doesn’t like him. And if you want her to get along with Leliana, tell Leliana to stop talking about the Maker so much.”

Marja closes her eyes and rubs her temples. “We can’t all be fighting with each other. Leliana shoots straight enough to hit a wolf in the eye, and Sten can lift a sword that weighs more than I do. They’re useful.”

“I know they are. But they did kind of come out of nowhere. You can’t trust somebody you don’t know.”

He has a point, and he knows Marja can’t argue with it. They don’t know much more about these new companions now than they did when they first met them. Sten is tight-lipped, answering any queries with no more than five words at a time, and those words are never a straight answer. Leliana is the opposite- she talks more than enough for two people, reciting songs and stories and bits of information about a wide range of topics. And yet she dances around the subject of her own past. She was a Chantry sister, she says, and she was a traveling minstrel and she was a servant to a wealthy woman in Orlais. Any attempt to uncover further details is met with a story about old folk heroes or reminiscing about shoes.

“I’m not asking for trust,” Marja says. “Ancestors, the only one of us here who trusts anybody else is that dog of yours. I’m just asking that we don’t all kill each other.”

 

They find the woman they’re looking for near the river. By the state of her body, the wolves got to her days ago.

Everyone is a bit more subdued after that. They return to the Chantry for their payment and split into groups to gather supplies from the village as quickly as possible. Darvis and Morrigan end up perusing the wares of the very merchant Marja argued with the day before.

The heavy bag of coin Darvis left the Chantry with disappears quickly as he pulls items from the cart. He tries to stick to the essentials, but he doesn’t know what the essentials are at this point. The road to Redcliffe will be long and full of darkspawn- how much medicine will they need? Should they invest in spare weapons?

He looks up to ask Morrigan her opinion, but her attention is elsewhere. She’s bent over one of the merchant’s other items- a necklace, golden and slender, made of interweaving threads.

“That’s nice,” he says, and Morrigan starts and nearly drops the necklace on the ground.

With a huff, she regains her composure and returns the trinket to its proper place. “’Tis merely a bauble.” She moves to examine other wares, her gaze darting away a touch too quickly. Darvis takes a moment to study the necklace. It’s no jewel for nobility, to be certain- just a simple chain, although he judges the gold to be real enough. He wonders what about it has Morrigan acting so flustered.

“A pretty bauble,” he comments with a shrug. “Shame we don’t have coin to spare at the moment.”

Morrigan scowls. “Pretty has no use to us. Even if we had coin to spare, ‘twould be wasteful to spend it on trinkets.” Her tone is dismissive, but Darvis doesn’t miss the way her eyes drift back to ‘useless trinket’. The moment is short, however; Morrigan swiftly and suddenly turns away from the cart altogether.

“Let’s be off, I believe we’ve picked this place clean of anything with value.” She sets off at a quick pace, leaving Darvis to hastily pay for their items before jogging to her side.

“And here I thought everyone liked jewelry,” he replies, keeping his voice light and nonchalant. “Could be a dwarven thing, I guess. The people of Orzammar love to decorate themselves with all kinds of jewels- those who can afford to, at least. I always wanted to nick one, but it’s risky lifting something like that. Especially when it’s hanging around someone’s neck.”

A reluctant smile pulls on Morrigan’s lips, and she nods. “That is one thing that is much the same among the people here. We did not indulge in such frivolities in the Wilds, but the wealthy will flaunt the most extravagant pieces. And as for stealing them…”

Her eyes turn mischievous as she trails off, and Darvis raises an eyebrow. “Wait. Really?”

Morrigan's grin widens. “I was young, and reckless. I ventured beyond our home in the Wilds and happened upon a noblewoman by her carriage. She was adorned in sparkling garments the likes of which I had never seen and I was…dazzled.” She looks away for a moment, seemingly embarrassed. “As I said, I was young. To my mind, the scene before me was the epitome of wealth and beauty. I snuck up behind her and stole a hand mirror from the carriage. I remember it well, even now- ‘twas encrusted in gold and gemstones.”

Darvis lets out a low whistle. “Sounds like something worth a good pile of coin.”

“’Twould have been wise of me to sell the thing,” Morrigan says, her tone darkening as her smile fades. “Instead I raced back to the Wilds with my prize. When Flemeth saw it, she was furious that I would risk discovery for something so foolish.”

The stories Morrigan previously told of Flemeth return to Darvis’s memory, and he winces. If those stories contain even a pebble of truth, an angry Flemeth is not something to be faced lightly. “That must have been a difficult argument.”

“Indeed.  To teach me a lesson, she took the mirror and smashed it upon the ground.”  The words are delivered in a matter-of-fact manner. “I was heartbroken.”

“Shit.” Now Darvis is reminded of his own mother, who is prone to her own fits of shouting and smashing things. He looks down, fidgeting with the edges of his cloak. “Seems a bit harsh. You were just a kid.”

“A foolish one,” Morrigan replies forcefully. “Flemeth was right to break me of my fascination with such frivolity. Beauty has no meaning in the world. Survival has meaning. Power has meaning. These are more important than little golden mirrors covered in crystals.”

Survival has meaning. Darvis finds he can’t exactly argue with that. And yet he wants to do something to ease the tense defensiveness Morrigan has wrapped herself in. “I guess that’s true. Still, I don’t see why something can’t be powerful and beautiful.”

To Darvis’s pleasant surprise, his words have the desired effect. Morrigan tilts her head, a small smirk appearing on her face. “If only we lived in a perfect world, where everything was as we wished it,” she says with a dramatic sigh. “But alas, we are in Ferelden, and the darkspawn draw nearer each hour. I will take power, and be satisfied.”

The conversation drifts to other things, until they return to the rest of their group. Darvis adds the supplies they bought to their stockpile, counting and sorting what they’ve acquired and still, in the back of his mind, remembering the way Morrigan looked at that necklace. She can say whatever she wants about power and the uselessness of beauty- Darvis knows the expression of a person who sees something they want.

He doesn’t feel guilty when he sneaks back into town that night and makes for the unguarded merchant’s cart. This man is not one of the bereft, displaced refugees. Marja even called the man a war profiteer. Perhaps a stolen trinket is the universe delivering a bit of justice for once.

Despite his confidence that she does indeed want the necklace, Darvis doesn’t give it to Morrigan directly. He considers it, looping the golden chain through his fingers and watching her from the corner of his eye. But in the end he’s too wary of accidentally offending her; he’s seen her mood shift too often to be certain of her reaction. So instead he waits until her attention is elsewhere and simply leaves it with her things at the foot of her tent.

Morrigan makes no mention of the necklace’s sudden appearance. But that night, as their group shares dinner around a campfire, she shoots Darvis a subtle smile whenever the gold around her neck glints in the firelight.

 


 

Darkness all around her, darkness and heat and the earthy scent of the Deep Roads. Whispers hissing, not in her ears but in her bones and her blood, filling her senses and pulling her forward, forward, following the call until-

A jagged, reptilian shape towers overhead. Wings stretch out. Almost ready to take flight. The archdemon twists its neck until its staring her in the eyes and then it screams-

Marja jerks awake in a cold sweat. It takes a few moments for her breathing to slow, for her mind to remember where she is. She’s miles and miles away from any archdemon, in a makeshift camp set up in the fields of Lothering. Not in the Deep Roads, she reminds herself sternly.

Even once she’s calmed down, Marja knows sleep is now a lost cause. So she leaves her tent, hoping that the cool air will ease her nerves enough to return to sleep, if only for a few more hours. She soon realizes, however, that she is not the only one to have had a dream.

Alistair is already outside, coaxing some life into the fire pit. Darvis is there as well, skulking in the shadows just beyond the reach of the flame’s light. At the sound of her approach, Alistair looks up.

“Bad dreams, huh?” The fire finally catches, and Alistair sits back with a satisfied expression.

“You could say that.” Marja moves forward, warming her hands on the growing embers. “Those seem to be the only type I’m capable of having. Are dreams always so… real?”

“Not the normal kind. I once dreamed about having tea with a family of flying mabari. I don’t even like tea.” Alistair smiles weakly, although the grin fades as he continues speaking. “The darkspawn dreams, on the other hand…well, they sort of are real. That archdemon talks to the darkspawn horde, if you can really call it talking. We hear the same thing they do. That’s how we know this is a real Blight.”

“So this is going to keep happening?” Darvis demands.

“You learn to block the dreams out a bit. Eventually.” Alistair looks down, poking the fire even though the flames are now rising healthily. “But it never truly stops.”

“Just another perk of being a Grey Warden,” Darvis says with dark humor, shaking his head.

Alistair winces. “It’s no picnic, I know. I remember my first round of dreams as a recruit. I screamed like a little girl. Duncan had to come check that I hadn’t been murdered.” He gives a weak laugh. “Not embarrassing at all.”

Darvis doesn’t appear to appreciate the attempt at humor. “Exactly what I need. Less sleep and more… dreams.” He says the word like a curse. Marja notices for the first time just how tired he looks; dark circles have appeared under his eyes and his posture is noticeably more strained. He also, Marja notices with some curiosity, looked oddly flushed.

“Are you okay?” she asks before she can think better of it. “You look…red.” She glances at Alistair. “Is that another Warden thing?”

Alistair laughs- a real laugh this time, one that takes Marja by surprise. “You’re both red. The two of you got a sunburn today, I’d wager.”

“A what?” Darvis demands, reaching up to feel his face. Marja unconsciously mirrors the action; her skin feels normal, albeit slightly warmer than usual. Over the course of the previous day, the clouds that normally loom overhead in the Ferelden sky had parted to allow the sun to shine through. Marja rather liked it; the light blue of the sky was a good deal more cheerful than the usual somber grey. But Alistair’s tone implies something less pleasant.

“You got a burn from the sun,” he elaborates, looking expectantly between the dwarfs. When his words garner no further reaction, he sighs and rubs the back of his neck, thinking. “Right. Sorry. You wouldn’t know. Um, well, if you spend a lot of time in the sun when you’re not used to it, your skin turns red and gets really sensitive-”

“That thing actually burns you?” Darvis’s voice is incredulous. “Why does anyone live up here with something that is constantly fucking burning you?”

“It’s not all that bad. It’ll fade to a tan.”

Marja doesn’t know what that means, either. She frowns, still running a hand over her skin. “I don’t feel burned.”

“You will in the morning,” Alistair promises. “It can take a while to kick in, but once it does, you’ll know.”

Marja gives up trying to puzzle out this new concept and drops her hands back to her lap. “Just when I think understand the surface,” she murmurs. “Sun-touched, indeed.”

“And I always thought that was an expression,” Darvis grunts. “Blight dreams and burning alive. Sure am glad I stuck around for this.”  

The statement lacks the spite Marja has come to expect, and she realizes with strange humor that Darvis is simply too tired for his usual venom. And yet he makes no move to return to his tent, instead remaining with her and Alistair under the stars.

Marja understands. After so many days of walking and working and worrying, the call to sleep is singing strongly in her muscles. Yet the thought of retiring to her bedroll is abhorrent; she has no desire to close her eyes and possibly return to the world of darkness and whispers.

We just need to reach Redcliffe, she tells herself. Just hold it together until then. Sick or not, the arl will help them. He must.

 

The next morning proves Alistair right: as Marja stretches and dons her armor, her skin screams in protest at the movement. It itches fiercely, and yet scratching just brings new flares of pain to the very sensitive patches of red that color her arms and neck. She has no mirror to check her face, but she’s certain it must be flushed as well. Tying up her hair is even more of a chore than usual, as each pull against her scalp sets her nerves stinging. Thankfully, Leliana is able to make an elfroot concoction that soothes the burn, although it’s not a full cure. When Marja offers the ointment to Darvis, he grabs it from her without a word.

But Marja has more important things to worry about. She pushes away the distractions of her blistered skin and her exhaustion and directs the group to begin the march to Redcliffe.

“We may be wise to avoid the Imperial Highway,” Morrigan suggests. “No doubt Loghain still has patrols looking for you.”

The advice is sound, even if Marja doesn’t like it. The roads mean easier, quicker travel. But Morrigan is right in that it also means they will be far more exposed, so she consents and allows Morrigan to lead them a distance from the trail.

Alistair, at Marja’s insistence, stays close to Morrigan as they walk. Their inevitable bickering is enough to drive anyone to madness, but he’s the only one in the party who has actually been to Redcliffe, and she’s the only one who knows how to navigate the forests. Their combined knowledge is enough to assure Marja, who still finds the task of navigating the open surface somewhat intimidating, that they will not get lost.

 

“Are we lost?”

“No,” Morrigan replies, although the way she eyes their surroundings with uncertainty says differently.

“Possibly.” Alistair holds his map closer to his face, peering closely at the scrawled markings. “It’s been a while since I’ve returned to Redcliffe, you know. If I could just figure out where the road is…”

“You people and your roads,” Morrigan says scathingly. “I know just where we are. I simply need a minute to be certain. Preferably a minute without being distracted by foolish babble.”

Marja rubs her head, silently chiding herself for asking Alistair and Morrigan to work together on anything. “Okay, let’s-”

Her words are cut off by a sudden torrent of barking. Marja turns quickly towards the noise to see Darvis, looking just as confused as she is, trying to quiet his suddenly aggressive mabari. Nug does not seem to notice these attempts; his focus is on the surrounding woods. Teeth bared, hackles raised, he howls and barks into the trees, crouched defensively in front of Darvis.

“What’s wrong with him?” Marja asks.

“How should I know?” Darvis puts a hand on the dog’s back, and Nug takes a brief pause in his noise-making to shoot the man a beseeching look. Then he goes straight back to the barking. Darvis pulls a dagger from his belt, eying the woods with new apprehension. “Something’s out here.”

“It can’t be darkspawn,” Alistair says, although he draws his sword and moves to peer through the woods in the direction of Nug’s attention. “I would have sensed them by now.”

“Wild animals?” Marja suggests, although that doesn’t quite make sense. Nug has never made a racket like this before, even when they were hunting bears. Uneasy, she readies her axe- just in time to recognize the sound of something heavy and fast crashing through the trees.

Marja catches a glimpse of a sleek grey figure moving through the forest, too quick to make out any features. Tightening her grip on her weapon, she pushes cautiously onward, motioning for the others to follow behind. Hesitantly, she takes a few steps in the direction of the movement-

And then suddenly the creature is in sight. It’s a wild thing, with matted grey fur and long jagged fangs, and yet it stands haphazardly on two legs. Its nose is turned toward the sky, sniffing the air, as crazed yellow eyes dart about in every direction. There’s something deliberate in the motion, and yet there is nothing in those wild eyes that speaks of intelligent thought. The creature scratches at its own fur with crooked claws- claws that are caked in a dark red substance.

Marja goes still at the sight, but it’s too late. A the sound of her approach, the creature’s crazed eyes fix on her, and it charges.

Chapter Text

Marja barely has time to consciously register the sight of the crazed beast charging at her before her instincts take over. In one fluid, automatic motion, she hefts her axe up into a mighty swing that catches the creature in the shoulder. The blow redirects the monster’s attack, sending it sprawling to the dirt. It springs back up again with an enraged yowl, clutching a twisted arm to the gash in its side that now seeps with blood. Wild eyes dart around in a panic as the creature takes in the presence of Marja’s companions and realizes it’s surrounded.

By now the others are moving forward, readying their attacks, but rather than charge again the creature throws back its head and lets out a long, shrill howl. An arrow suddenly sprouts from the creature’s neck, and the howl cuts off into a wet gurgle. The creature takes one staggering step, then falls forward. Marja looks over her shoulder to see Leliana, looking pale but determined, another arrow already notched to her bow.

The creature on the ground twitches a few more times and eventually goes still. For a brief moment, a stunned silence falls over the group. Then-

“What in the bloody sodding fuck is that?” Darvis demands.

For once, Marja shares the sentiment.

“I think it’s a werewolf,” Alistair answers in a hoarse voice. Before Marja can ask further questions, another howl rings through the forest. Alistair lets out a weak laugh. “Oh. And it has friends. How nice.”

“How many do you think there are?” Marja asks.

“They’re supposed to be rare,” Leliana says. “I’ve heard stories of them, but I never dreamed I’d see one with my own eyes.”

“But what are they?” Darvis demands again. Before he can get an answer a crashing noise from somewhere in the trees around them has the entire group alert and preparing themselves for a fight.

“They’re bad,” Alistair says, raising his sword and shield as Marja adjusts her grip on her axe. “Is that good enough for now?”

Blades in hand, Darvis lets out a weary breath. “Yeah, that’ll do.”

A sudden surge of snarling is the only warning they get before the trees around them explode with werewolves. One lunges for Marja and she knocks it back with a wide sweep of her axe, leaving it bleeding and stunned and the perfect target as Nug leaps in and goes for the throat. At Marja’s side Alistair pushes another wolf back with his shield as Leliana fires a volley of arrows, and the flash of sudden fire to her left tells her that Morrigan is handling another.

In the distance she can hear Darvis cursing and turns to help- only to be knocked to the ground in an attack that leaves her breathless, and above her is a rabid beast leaning in with bared fangs-

But the expected bite never comes. Instead, the pressure on Marja’s chest is suddenly released as the wolf goes hurtling through the air. Sten wrestles the creature to the ground, ignoring the strikes from claws and teeth that drag across his arms. He pulls back just enough to maneuver his sword, and in one decisive strike sinks the blade into the creature’s chest.

It’s the last werewolf to fall. The others lay strewn across the clearing, looking just as twisted and mutated in death as they did in life. With heavy breaths, Sten staggers to his feet, blood dripping from his wounds. Marja rushes forward to support him.

“Are you injured?” she asks. “It’s that armor, they made it too small, I knew we should have commissioned a better fit-”

Help.”

The sound sends chills down Marja’s back. She doesn’t quite understand why until she turns to the source and realizes the voice came from one of the wolves- injured, but not yet dead, stirring feebly on the blood-stained grass.

“Shit,” Darvis murmurs. “It’s alive. And it can talk.”

Help…us…” the wolf wheezes. Its eyes blink rapidly, showing large pupils that flash from the same crazed look they held during the attack to something more…intelligent.

It’s not an animal, Marja realizes with a sinking horror in her stomach. Swallowing her apprehensions, she kneels down next to the creature and does her best to keep her voice steady as she speaks. “You attacked us. Why should we help you?”

The wolf shakes its head. “Not me…too late…the Dalish…the curse…”

“The curse,” Alistair mutters. “It’s talking about the werewolves, I’d wager. People don’t just turn into these things out of nowhere. This curse must be the reason.”

“Wait,” Darvis says. “People? This was a person?”

Danyla…” the wolf sighs. It closes its eyes, chest shaking. “I was…Danyla. But the spirit…the curse…too much. Seeking help…too far…madness set in. Find the Dalish…tell Zathrian…only one way…he must…end it…”

And with one last rattling breath, the creature that had once been Danyla dies.

 

“So werewolves are crazed, mutated wolf creatures that were once regular people, but they got infected by some sort of curse, and now they want to kill everything they see?”

Leliana puts her chin in her hands as she considers Darvis’s words. “That’s not an inaccurate summary, I suppose. But only sometimes. Sometimes they are ‘wolf creatures’ that were once ordinary wolves, but found themselves possessed by rage demons.”

“That still want to kill everything they see.”

“If the legends I’ve heard are true, yes.”

“Please be joking,” Marja says, throwing a glance over her shoulder at the two. Leliana’s expression is the only answer she needs.

Darvis groans and rubs his face with his hands. “Just when I think the surface can’t get any fucking weirder…”

A not-completely-muffled grunt of pain from Sten draws Marja back to the task at hand. “Sorry,” she mutters, focusing again on the wound on the Qunari’s arm. “I wish we knew more about this ‘curse’. We might be able to figure out a better way to treat you.”

“I will live,” Sten says stiffly, but even he can’t mask the strain in his voice. Still, Marja is impressed he’s doing as well as he is. Morrigan has applied her usual magic to the werewolf bite, but whatever strange magic the beast carried seems resistant her healing. Normal wounds would knit themselves together when exposed to her healing spells, leaving nothing more than a strange itching sensation. But not only is Sten’s wound continuing to bleed, it now seems to be worsening with each passing minute.

With no other way to treat the open wound, they’ve turned to dwarven healing-a large bottle of the strongest liquor they have on hand and good old-fashioned stitches.

Alistair sits at Marja’s side, handing her supplies when asked and eying the whole practice with skepticism. Marja supposes that after relying on the Warden’s mages for most injuries, her attempt at treatment does seem crude by comparison.

“You’re doing it crooked,” Darvis observes.

Marja grits her teeth. “Would you like to take over?”

“Eh, I couldn’t do much better. That was Leske’s expertise. I was always the one getting stitched up.”

“It’s barbaric,” Morrigan states. She sits on the other side of the campfire, drawn to the spectacle by equal parts horror and fascination. “How anyone manages to survive without magic…”

“I would be less worried about the stitches and more about the bite itself,” Leliana says nervously. “It’s quite possible that he may…”

“…Turn into one of the creatures?” Morrigan finishes when Leliana trails off. Her tone is noticeably unsympathetic. “We slayed the others easily enough.”

“That is not the point!” Leliana protests.

“I’m trying to concentrate!” Marja cuts in. Sten hisses through his teeth as her fingers slip, and a few darkly muttered words in a language Marja doesn’t recognize spill from his lips. Marja takes a steadying breath and repositions the needle. “Sten, do you feel like you’re turning into a werewolf?”

“No.”

From anyone else, the short, ill-tempered answer would cause Marja worry. From Sten, she can’t tell if the irritated brevity is indicative of pain, a symptom of transformation, or just Sten being Sten.

Morrigan certainly does not seem satisfied. “How would you know?” She presses. “You have experience with the sensation of becoming a werewolf, do you?”

“Enough!” Marja shakes her head. “We obviously need to figure this out. We need to seek out these Dalish.”

“The Dalish?” That part catches Alistair’s attention. “What about Redcliffe?”

“I’m sorry, Alistair,” Marja says, throwing a beseeching look at the Warden. “I know you’re worried about the Arl. But that… woman said she was looking for help. The situation sounded desperate. And if there’s a chance Sten might now be in danger-”

“There is no danger. We should continue to Redcliffe.” Sten’s voice is stubborn and firm, and Marja would gape at him if she weren’t so focused on her needlework.

“Seriously?” Darvis raises an eyebrow. “For once, the princess has a point. You want to take the chance of becoming one of those things?”

Marja is silent as she pulls the last stitch through Sten’s skin. The work isn’t pretty, but it should keep him from dying of blood loss. Now they just have to worry about him dying of infection or turning into a monster.

Sten stretches his arm stiffly, expressionless despite the obvious severity of the injury. “I was told I was to aid in a quest to stop the Blight. If the quest leads us to your human arl, that is where we must go. If I am weak enough to fall victim to this curse they speak of, I deserve no less.”

Marja closes her eyes and silently begs the Ancestors for patience. “I understand that, Sten. We will still go to the arl. But our quest will also lead us to the Dalish eventually. They are to be our allies, according to the treaties. And they can’t help us if we let this curse turn them all into werewolves. This must be dealt with swiftly.”

And you can’t help us if you turn into a werewolf, she doesn’t say, but she thinks Sten understands the implication. The qunari grunts, considering her words, then bows his head. “Very well.”

 


 

According to Morrigan, they’re not going to find the Dalish by just walking blindly deeper into the Brecilian Forest. Rather, if they continue walking blindly deeper into the Brecilian Forest, the Dalish will find them. And after hours of traveling through increasingly thicker trees and enduring swarms of biting insects (because, Darvis reflects, of course that’s a normal part of life on the surface), Morrigan is proven correct.

The elf appears out of nowhere, as if she’s sprung directly from the bark of the trees that surround them. Two more materialize at her side, and all three have bows drawn and aimed at the approaching group. “Stop right there, shemlen.”

“Mostly shemlen, anyway,” one of the others comments. Their eyes drift over the odd group gathered before them. “Who are you and what do you want?”

Naturally, Marja steps forward and begins explaining in overly-diplomatic tones about the Wardens and the treaties and the werewolves. Darvis is sure it’s all very eloquent and placating, but he doesn’t hear a word. He’s too shocked by the sight of the elves to comprehend the assurances Marja gives, or the suspicious manner with which the elves treat them even after the weapons have been put away. Even as the elves lead them to the Dalish camp, he doesn’t pay attention to the twists and turns of the path they take through the dark woods. His attention is too fixed upon the markings that decorate the faces of the Dalish guides.

Darvis has never known elves could be Casteless.

 

“Wait here,” the elf who led them to camp says tersely. “Zathrian will wish to speak with you.” She gives the group one last, searching look before turning and disappearing into the maze of tents and wagons that populate the forest clearing. Although clearing isn’t quite the right word- the trees are less thick here, true, but not absent. The branches overhead cast an odd shade over the place, for which Darvis, still suffering from his sunburn, is grateful.

Despite the overabundance of nature, the Dalish have managed to set up quite the campsite. Several small fires are clustered at one end of the clearing, decorated with artwork and statues. At the other end of the clearing, the strange rickety wagons seem to be used as workplaces, sleeping places, and anything-else-you-need-to-do places. Something about the camp seems off to Darvis, although it takes a moment for him to figure out just what it is. At last, it hits him- despite the obvious size of the clan, there is very little activity within the campsite. A few elves peer around the wagons to observe their visitors, but the only conversation Darvis can hear is subdued whispers.

Darvis also notices that every elven face bears tattoos, and realizes that they cannot be Casteless marks. Each tattoo has a different design or color, but every single elf has one. Darvis is about to ask the others what they mean when their guide returns with an older elf in tow.

“Greetings, Wardens,” he says in a low, serene voice. “I am Zathrian, the Keeper of this clan.” His voice feels old, but his face is smooth and gives no hint as to what his age may be. From the reverent looks he receives from the others, however, Darvis can guess that he is well-respected.

What follows is an exchange of introductions that drags on much longer than it should. As Marja and Zathrian enjoy each other’s talkative-ness, Darvis continues to find himself distracted by his surroundings. There he sees a altar decorated with branches and antlers, and there in the distance he spots a strange creature with snow-white fur, and there a small elf girl tugs on her mother’s hand and points openly at the Wardens before being quickly ushered away. It’s a struggle for Darvis to stop his staring and drag his attention back to the conversation.

“If you’ve come about our promise to the Grey Wardens,” Zathrian is saying to an attentive Marja and Alistair, “I fear we may not be able to fulfill it. We are quite preoccupied with our own troubles at the moment.”

 “Yes, we know,” Marja replies. “We were set upon by a group of what we believe were werewolves. They told us to seek out your clan.”

“They… told you?” Zathrian’s eyes narrow. “They spoke?”

“Only one of them. She said her name was Danyla.”

“Danyla.” Zathrian raises a hand to his brow and releases a heavy breath. “I had hoped…but when her hunting party did not return, I should have known to fear the worst. Is she…”

Marja hesitates, so Darvis steps forward and says it for her. “Danyla is dead. She was one of the creatures, and she attacked us.”

“But before she died,” Marja continues, “she had a moment of clarity. She told us to find the Dalish, and you. She spoke of ending the curse, and asked for our help.”

Zathrian bows his head, fingers knitted together under his chin, eyes deep in thought. “She retained some semblance of intelligence longer than I thought possible. I knew these werewolves were different, but this…I’ve never heard of the beasts being more in control of themselves than rabid wolves. From what I know of such magic, the curse should fill them with a rage that cannot be reasoned with.”

Darvis throws a sideways glance at Sten. The large warrior has been largely silent since the attack, but a pained grimace has snuck into his expression as he holds his injured arm gingerly at his side. The wrappings are stained red, Darvis notices- the stitches must have opened. Swallowing his quickly increasing concern, Darvis nods at the warrior and asks lightly, “You’re not feeling any more rage-y than usual, are you?”

For the first time, Zathrian notices the bandages on Sten’s arms and goes pale. “One of yours was bitten?”

“That’s partially why we’re here,” Marja begins, but Zathrian only shakes his head.

“The bites of these creatures bring either transformation or agony. We have all of our healers searching for a way to treat it, but have made no progress. If it is a cure you come seeking, you will not find it here.”

“You say this is a curse.” All eyes turn to Morrigan, who has been silent up to this point. Now she studies the elven Keeper with a critical eye. “Ending the curse would end the effects of the bite, would it not? Why have you not done so?”

Zathrian tenses. “Our warriors have made many attempts, but this is no trivial task you speak of. The only way to end the curse is to destroy its source. Deep within the Brecilian Forest dwells a great wolf. Witherfang. It is from this wolf the curse comes, and from its blood that the curse spreads. If the wolf were to be slain, and its heart brought to me, I may be able to reverse the curse.”

“So, kill the wolf. End the curse. Save Sten and your warriors.” Darvis ticks the points off on his fingers. The list is deceptively simple. “Why do I have the feeling there’s a catch?”

“The wolf you seek is a mighty creature. It lives in the oldest part of the forest. Besides the werewolves, there are spirits to contend with, and all manner of beasts-”

“We’re Grey Wardens,” Marja says, with a confidence that Darvis thinks is perhaps a bit large for what they have to offer. “We can end the curse, and once everyone is safe you can lend us strength against the Blight.”

Zathrian pauses, studying Marja with curious eyes. “I do not know if you are truly as powerful as you claim, but unfortunately you are the only hope we have left. Our clan is suffering. The werewolves cannot be allowed to live. Bring me Witherfang’s heart, and you shall have both our gratitude and our support.”

 

As they prepare for their foray into the depths of the forest, everyone agrees that it will be best for Sten to stay at the Dalish camp with the healers. Everyone, that is, except for Sten.

“You are not fit to fight,” Darvis repeats. “Now get back in the bed before I pin you there with my daggers.”

Sten scowls and continues to try and stand. At this point, Darvis is just amazed that the man can put up such a fight. The healing area-which is really no more than a collection of beds and tents- is full of wounded hunters that can only moan in agony from the pain of their own bites. Five of them together wouldn’t have this kind of energy. Maybe they’ve just been suffering the cursed wounds longer than Sten has. Maybe the qunari has some sort of natural defense against the infection. Maybe Sten is just a stubborn, stone-headed idiot.

Whatever the reason, Sten’s protestations are drawing attention. The elven healers hover nearby, clearly wondering if they should intercede but unsure of how to do so. Darvis can’t really blame them for not wanting to wrestle down the ill qunari. He can blame the others for going and leaving him to do this alone, and he can definitely blame Sten for making the job so damned difficult.

“What are you going to do with us out in the forest, with a fever and an infected arm and the possibility you’ll suddenly want to kill us all?” Darvis demands. “Just stay here and try not to die until we come back!”

Sten growls, deep and angry, but as he tries to maneuver around the dwarf his expression suddenly tightens in pain, and he clutches madly at his injured arm. After a long moment he regains himself, and at last allows Darvis to push him back onto the bed. “You…may have a point.”

Finally, Darvis thinks. Convincing the stubborn qunari of anything is harder than catching a greased nug. He hopes the others are quick in gathering the supplies Zathrian promised to provide; they’ll need to move quickly before Sten changes his mind.

As Darvis thinks this, Sten glares at his own arm as if he’s been personally betrayed. “I came with you to fight against the Blight. Now I cannot even do that.”

“Why’s that so damned important?” Darvis asks. He remembers that speech Marja and Alistair gave, about duty and doing the right thing for the good of Ferelden. Somehow, he doesn’t think those reasons apply to Sten.

“I left my home to accomplish my task. To serve the Qun. My every attempt has been met only with failure and dishonor.”

Darvis hesitates. This is the most Sten has said about his home, about his life at all before they found him in that cage in Lothering. “What was the task?”

“To find the answer to a question.”

“…And what was the question?”

What is the Blight?” Sten recites. “It is a question posed by the Arishok. My leader. For the sake of my people and their safety, it must be answered.”

“Well,” Darvis says with some awkwardness, “we’ll kill this super-special wolf, and you’ll be all healed up, and we can go fight the Blight to your heart’s content. Then you can go home and tell them how horrible it all was, and that’ll be your answer.”

The jape does not earn a reaction. Sten’s face is stoic as ever when he says, “I cannot go home.”

Behind that one statement, Darvis senses a much deeper story. But then Sten grimaces and clutches his arm, and Darvis knows now is not the time to dig through his past. Instead, he shrugs and says, “Join the club, I guess. At least we’re sticking together, right? Even if it is just because of a lack of better options.”

Sten’s mouth twitches. “I suppose so. Thank you.”

“And who knows? Maybe we’ll help you get home again. Unless we get eaten by wolves out in the forest.”

A part of Darvis wants Sten to say that of course that won’t happen, that they’ll kill the beasts and save everyone. It might be nugshit, but it’d be comforting nugshit. But Sten just nods and says, “From what I have seen so far, such an outcome is likely.”