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The Natural Disaster

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 lothering pt 1


 

 

She watched the sun go down, eating rabbit off a stick, and thought not for the first time that life was fucking weird.

And for all she thought, her heart started to beat faster.

She was better with panic when it wasn’t paired with quiet.

Panic was for your hands, easier to beat into submission. All she had now was the sky, its mess of pink and orange, its clouds all soft and sweet and edible. When she breathed in, the fresh air seemed to go too deep. And Lothering was quiet, sat squat in the midst of a highway. They camped at its edge, arriving late into the night. Looking at it from a distance it might have even been picturesque and perfect. If you didn’t look close enough. If you didn’t know better.

Her warhound sat at her feet, breathing heavy and awaiting leftovers. He stank of war and blood and dirt, and it reminded her that she needed to give him a bath, but she found comfort in it and his heavy, pounding heart. She was thankful for this new friend that didn't ask why, as she breathed so deep her lungs and sinuses hurt.

There wasn’t much to do about the smell of an alienage, try as you might to fix it with fresh flowers and incense. The houses were dense and the alleyways cramped, and they were many. Their lonely tree permeated a rich stench of soil, dense and thick. It was meant to mark some semblance of unity with them and the world and the people they used to be, but an alienage was an alienage. It was broken, and made to make broken things.

She’d been one of those broken things. Holding onto the corners of deep cracks, trying to pull herself out with fingers that grew older. She was designed to fall.

She wasn’t supposed to end up trying to save the world. Destiny didn’t mean shit.

'Fuck,' she said, bewildered.

‘My thoughts exactly.’

She flinched through a glance over her shoulder at Alistair, firelight playing on his fair skin. She’d been so wrapped up in herself. Part of her just wanted to be alone, but on the same coin couldn’t help but feel like since Ostagar they’d both been tumbling from the same upheaval, so she chewed her mouth shut.

He was a strange commodity. A rambler, filling the void, and sometimes it helped. Sometimes it just made her want to lug something at his big human head.

She watched him stare at his boot, digging it into the dirt, and for the first time since she'd met him he finally seemed as young as she.

What the fuck did they think they were doing?

He glanced at her finally. 'Crazy first few days on the job, huh.'

She snorted, scared when it sounded more like a hiccup and her eyes nearly burst with tears in a hysterical kind of way. She pulled Hobbs close and buried her face in his big shoulder.

'I was hired because I drank darkspawn blood out of some bygone chalice and didn’t die a violent, gruesome death, so I figured it wasn’t going to be all daisies and sunshine.'

'Yes, well it wasn't supposed to be royal betrayal and tragedy.’ he said.

‘Comes with the territory I suppose.’

‘What territory is that?’

‘Human politics.’

‘Ah.’ Alistair nodded in agreement. ‘I’ve… never been one for it myself, either.’

‘And yet here you are.’

‘Here we are,’ he echoed. ‘Saddled with saving Ferelden ourselves. Duncan didn’t...’ His own mentioning of the old Warden seemed to shock him.

She stopped mashing her face into Hobbs’ fur and finally got a good look at him. He looked baby-faced and heartbroken. Dark and puffy under the eyes. She swallowed down that strange sadness of losing somebody before you really knew them.

‘I wish I’d handled it better.’ he said softly.

‘Someone you loved died . Sometimes you don’t get to decide how you handle anything.’

‘It’s just that… he kept telling me to prepare, that it was inevitable, it’s what we signed up for. I shouldn’t have…’ He dragged a hand across his face and looked frustrated with himself. 'Sorry, I shouldn’t put this on you. You didn't know him as long as I did.’

‘I care that he’s dead.’

‘You didn’t seem to like him very much.’

She felt angry at that. Enough had happened for her to feel all kinds of ways about Duncan before he had kicked it.

She hadn’t been very kind to him, that was a fair enough statement. She could tell that he’d learnt how to methodically rip desperate people with little choice out of bad situations. The more she learnt about Alistair, the more she was certain he was just another victim of it. It was all for the greatest cause she knew, but she had been bitter all the same. Bitter and cruel enough to ignore the great sadness in Duncan that he had tried to show her in an attempt to relate.

He had spoken for hours on long fitful nights over their campfires on the road to Ostagar. She’d given him a wide berth even as she’d been drawn to the stable timbre of his voice, as he told her how smart and terrifying he had known her mother to be, for the short amount of time she had been privileged to it. About his lonely childhood on the streets, about his short stretch of life that felt like a hundred years.

‘Being a Grey Warden might be a shitting nightmare, but he still got me out Denerim before I got thrown in jail or- or worse. And he-’ she stopped, feeling childish for the next few words, he knew my mother, and he told me stories about her. 'Of course I care that he’s dead.' She repeated, and it came out with a lot more bite than she meant.

Her rudeness was borne of her own pain and an overwhelming alarm for the future, but she felt bad all the same. It wasn't like Alistair was any more equipped to deal with what happened than she was, if anything his stakes were higher, his losses greater.

And he should be sorry she ever became a Warden.

'Of course,' Alistair backpedalled, looking apologetic. 'Of course you do. I'm sorry. Look, all I meant was to apologise for the way I reacted. I shut down, with so much riding on me. Us. I shouldn’t have done that. Not with the Blight and... and everything. I'm sorry. I’m trying to say sorry.'

A human sat beside her now with something she was shocked to find was guilt in his face, and there was this old feeling, this wretched feeling of being lured. But surely, what he’d just managed to trip his mouth over was a genuine apology. He had the most honest face she had ever seen.

'You’ve managed to say sorry four times.’ she said finally.

‘Sorry.’ He winced. She couldn’t help but smile.

They watched the last of the sun, nothing but Hobbs' huffs and puffs and a fire crackling behind them, Morrigan as she fussed over it and kept to herself. She'd lost her appetite, and so started to pull the meat off the skewer piece by piece, feeding it to Hobbs and trying to teach him to take food gently. He stared between her and the rabbit with rapt attention.

When the stars started appearing one by one faintly in the sky, Alistair spoke again.

'He deserves a proper funeral. Maybe once this is all done... If we're still alive, that is.'

'Not likely.'

'But if we are , well. I don't think he had any family to speak of, but...'

'He had you, didn’t he?' she reminded him, and was pleased with the way some tension left his shoulders, and his eyes softened.

‘He saved me too, you know. He was like a father to me sometimes. Not sure how he would have felt about that.’ Alistair shrugged thoughtfully. 'Maybe he was something better than a father.’

It made her think of her own father. The tears on his old face, his final kiss on her hair, trying to find a spot that wasn’t covered in blood. The way he said “you’re just like your mother after all” like his eyes were finally open. Like it wasn’t a good thing at all.

‘I miss my father.’ she said, without thinking. She turned her head away and felt the burning sensation of Alistair’s eyes on her.

‘What’s he like?’

She thought about this for a moment. ‘Old. Serious. He worries too much.’

‘Is he nice, though?’ The way he said it, like it was imperative to know. The only quality that mattered.

She smiled again. ‘The nicest. Mam got mad all easy but he was always just so…’

An image came into her head. A split lip, a fight with a neighbour kid, her bouncing on his knee as he explained for the umpteenth time why using your fists was never a good way to settle your issues. He always talked to her like she was better than she acted.

The only issue was that she’d seemed doomed from birth to be a disaster. Her mother had named her after the wind and the world named her after a storm.

Tarasyl’nin , some had called her, sometimes with little more than tolerance. She had liked it because it made her feel like she was so much more than she really was. A storm stopped for nothing and no one.

And what a fucking joke that was, now that she was a really big thing, bigger than she could handle. The only problem was that a bad storm rattled bones and left devastation in its path. That's all it did, right? It didn't fix things. It didn't go from a life of malcontent and forced marriages to great wars.

‘We didn’t deserve his patience, at any rate.’ she finished, sliding the empty skewer between her fingers in a fit of restless energy.

'Duncan told me about your mother,’ he said carefully, like he knew he was playing with fire. She must have given him a look that said as much, because he held his hands up and shook them, trying to fan it out. 'Don’t think poorly of him. He told me, you know, as a- I run my mouth sometimes and he didn’t want me to say anything foolish. I just… does it get easier?'

She thought about that very hard. Had that feeling in her chest ever really gone away? That tightness that made her feel like something cloying was swelling up in her lungs and catching her breath. Sometimes it felt like it refused to give it back. And that emptiness, always on her shoulders, always too heavy.

'Not really. You just... get bigger than it.' Her words came out small, barely there. She put her face against Hobbs as he rested it in her lap, belly full and looking up at her with the sweetest eyes, and decided she was done bonding. The air might be too deep in Lothering, but it was better than this suffocating moment.

Alistair opened and closed his mouth like he was scrambling for an apology, but she didn’t want it. You didn’t get to ask the hard questions and then take them back. So instead, smartly, he said, ‘I fear you did a better job of consoling me than I did you. Thank you.'

She was overcome with a memory, a few words stored away in a prepubescent time. All this thought and talk of her mother made her remember it. She hadn’t taken it to heart at the time, not really understanding the implications of time and bad memories.

“Even when only the big, overwhelming things are happening it’s dangerous to let the small things pass you by, because they are gentle and at the end of it all, they’re what you remember the most.”

She felt a place in her stomach twist up inside her. This new armour of hers was starting to get itchy. Oppressive. Alistair was her superior but he was crumbling and clinging to her willingness to help like he knew her, like she hadn’t thought about deserting him so many times already in some deep, dark part of her.

‘I need some air.’ she said. If they noticed that she took her bag with her, Alistair and Morrigan said nothing.

 

-

 

The one thing Sten was not at all surprised to learn was that basra spoke too much, and managed to say very little.

It was late into the night when he met her. He had been whispering words of the Qun to himself. They might have helped before, might have made sense. He was not sure why he clung to it, or tried to feel something, some connection to himself and what he used to be, but there was nothing. Emptiness, but in a rough way. Like things had been cut out haphazardly.

It was the hound he saw and heard first, footfalls making the ground quake, the sight of it bounding under the streetlamps right for the cage, a shadow of muscle. From this distance it was hard to tell whether or not that slavering mouth meant any harm. He found it didn’t really matter.

Somebody whistled, and then cooed out a name. ‘Hobbs! Stay close, boy.’

He watched her jog down the path after the hound. It still came straight for his cage, sniffing madly. It stank, gave off waves of heat.

She said its name once more. Sharp, not to be trifled with. It gave her a look and slunk back over behind her knees, panting. She might have rode it for all its size, and lack of hers.

She looked at him then, and he looked back.

An elf-girl. She had tears in her eyes.

She straightened up when she realised, and squashed them away with the heel of her palm and looked angry that he had seen them. Angry was a natural look on her, deep little lines at her brow made a thousand times before.

‘What are you looking at?’ she bit out, crying had blocked up her nose and he heard her sniff. Her lip curled a little. Every inch of her was a jagged edge, too high-strung.

What was he looking at? The answer was not a simple one. An armoured, armed woman. A bad tempered child. A very guilty basra.

When he said nothing to stoke her anger, remaining silent and still, she seemed to deflate. Her mouth opened, closed, the hesitation in her was almost tangible.

Those elf iris’ of hers glowed, tinged, and the whites captured stars and moonlight and made for a mesmerising effect. She assessed him, with all the wrong amounts of fear and curiosity. The people here were strange.

The lights of her eyes disappeared as she looked out into the fields, adjusting the pack on her back with a slight bounce. Hands clenching around the straps.

He guessed her path took her across the fields, but he had learnt from his guards that they were no longer safe to traverse at night. All manner of thieves and spiders and bears. Whether she could use that blade strapped to her back was of little consequence when you were alone in the dark.

‘It is not a safe path at night,’ he said, despite his better judgement.

She flinched at his voice, surprised he even spoke.

'What?’

He motioned out into the darkness and she followed the gesture.

'What- who says I'm going anywhere?’

They both knew the obvious. Full pack, full armour, itchy feet. He said nothing more.

The silence made something boil over in her and she deflated with a deep breath.

When she blinked excess tears spilled out down her cheeks, but instead of making her angrier they seemed to mellow her further. She wiped them away with armoured fingers, a delicate job.

‘Who am I kidding.’ she said softly. She glanced into the fields and the highway beyond again longingly. ‘The truth is I want to just get out of here but that would be really… bad of me.’

‘And that is why you are crying?’

He did not know what possessed him to ask such a question. The way her eyes slid over him, slowly, irritably, told him she thought the same thing.

‘I can’t help that I cry when I’m frustrated.’ she snapped, like he should know better. Then he would not talk about the way her hands shook slightly, from more than the cold. From some panic and adrenaline she was trying to ignore.

Smartly, he kept his mouth shut.

'Why am I even talking to you? I talk to too many men in cages.’

'That is a strange habit.’

She shifted from foot to foot. 'Yeah well it kinda works out, you know? Maybe being in a cage makes you honest. Last time a guy gave me a key he had been smuggling in his ass and you know what that opened? A chest full of loot. So what do yo u have for me?’

‘Nothing.’ he said, still trying to process the ridiculous story.

'No ass-keys? A shame. So why’d they put you in there, anyway?’

'Why would anybody be put in a cage?'

The way she smirked when he continued to speak to her made him feel like he had lost at some sort of game.

'Probably because Lothering doesn't have any fancy dungeons. You’re, um. What even are you? Looks a little squishy in there. You're bigger than any human I’ve ever fucking seen.’ He watched her trying to pick him out of the limited races she might have known, but knew she would never find it. His kind was still fresh in Ferelden. He’d been mistaken by many for a Chasind at first glance.

‘Is that blood or paint?’ she asked, jutting her chin in the general direction of his bare chest. How she could see it under the faint light of the tavern lamppost many feet away, he did not know.

'Both.’

‘You do something bad?’

‘There are many here that would rejoice in seeing me dead.’ he said.

‘Well, you’re pretty terrifying. And different . People are stupid and don’t know how to deal with that.’

That he did not disagree with. He was acutely aware of their fear of him. They had trembled as they marched him to the cage, still covered in blood. As soon as their priest had locked the door they had exhausted their lungs with their hatred. But even the biggest man with his sharpest sword had kept a good many feet away while they taunted him, even those that threw stones did so from great distances. Typical of these small, soft things. It was interesting how quickly anger left them without the reaction they craved, and it eventually seemed as if he had faded into the backdrop, like he was part of it, like he had always been engraved into quaint farms and a little village.

But she did not know. She had too much confidence in speaking with him and none of the hatred.

‘I would probably be in a cage or worse if they hadn't made me a Grey Warden,’ she said, looking out to the highway once more, still itchy.

His gaze lingered to her, and something clicked. ‘You are a Grey Warden?’

She perked up. ‘Have you heard of us?’

He’d heard many legends of the Wardens. Perhaps Ferelden’s most honourable of warriors, for its most selfless cause.

And his usual guards were clucking hens for all they gossiped. The language was like that to him sometimes. All manner of people passed through Lothering and they had a word for them all, even more so with the war and atrocities it brought. The people of the wilds and what they liked to do to their prey, the dark things they danced for. A great battle the bas had fought had just been lost to the darkspawn, the murmurs of a dead king. The great betrayal of an ancient order.

That Warden chatter grew over the last few hours, for a pair of strangers in very distinct armour had supposedly turned up at the edge of the village that evening. If they were Wardens, then they were deemed traitors and a disgrace to the crown. It seemed an odd contradiction for all the supposed good they did.

But… her? A Grey Warden? This small thing, smiling like an idiot. A Grey Warden. If the chatter was true she'd made a mess of those bandits that had been blocking the highway.

‘I have heard legends of the Grey Warden’s strength and skill.’

‘I’ve been a Warden for ab oouut , three days now, give or take. I was passed out for some of it.’

He rumbled. ‘I suppose not every legend is true.’

She snorted. ‘It's pretty disappointing, I know. It’s just me and Alistair now. We’re all that’s left in Ferelden. Some serious shit went down at Ostagar.’

Suddenly, she sat on the mud in front of him. The hound followed. The hands that had gone to the bars as leverage uncurled and he meshed them at his knee. He did not remove his eyes from her. The breeze was picking at the odd strand of her pale hair.

‘Lothering is so quiet, it’s unnerving. How can you just sit here?’

‘I am in a cage.’ he reminded her.

She rubbed the back of her neck, sheepish.

‘What do you want, elf?’

She seemed surprised at his bluntness.

‘That’s a great question.’ And she looked troubled by it. ‘I just… I… it’s not really working out well. The people I'm travelling with might be better off without me.’

'So you were running.’ A statement, not a question.

She looked like she wanted to deny it, instead she just clenched her jaw. He watched it jump.

She gripped the bars. There was only moonlight between them. He caught the way her hound stopped panting and held its breath at this. The disappearance of that heavy sound made the chirps of bugs in the fields suddenly dense. Sten thought the Mabari might even be capable of ripping apart the metal cage, if he gave it reason to. Smart, powerful animal.

‘I’m not made for this.’

‘Everybody is made for something.’

'What? Are you talking about fate or something? That’s a load of crap. What happened wasn't fate . I'm not a Warden because I was born to be. I had no choice.’ His silence made her make a sound of exasperation, bordering on a snarl. ‘You can't judge me for shit, stop looking at me like that.’

'You assume much.’

‘What I don't gotta assume is that you're in this damn cage because you've done something real awful, so what would you know about it, huh?’

More than you know.

‘Sorry,’ she mumbled, hiding the embarrassment on her face in the crook of her arm, propped up on a knee. ‘I’m… I'm not good. I've never been good. And now I'm putting all my shit on you. Do you want something to eat? Bread, or…’

‘No. Thank you.’

‘I have apples, if you prefer.’

‘No.’

‘I’m sure you’re starving? Just eat. I have water, too.’

Parshaara .’

She gave a laugh. ‘What was that you said? I bet that was something really mean. Why not?’

‘Were you in my position, would you prolong your imprisonment?’

She blinked, like a thorough examination of her eyelids. ‘And what position is that, exactly?’

‘I will die in here.’

She looked shocked. ‘You sound so sure of that.’

‘If that is my fate, so shall it be.’

She snorted at him, clearly not impressed by his reply. Again with fucking fate. Couldn’t you do anything more useful with your time?’

‘I am in a cage .’ he said, on the edge of a snarl. For her mocking, foolish words. The dog reiterated the sound deep in his throat at him, claws finding the malleable earth beneath them in long gashes.

He wiped a hand across his mouth, trying to swallow his anger. This hunger was indeed making him fade around the edges, lose his practiced control. He turned his face away.

‘Leave.’

She did not. The crack in his calmness only seemed to intrigue her more.

‘You think starving yourself in here is going to make up for anything you’ve done? Just letting the darkspawn take you?’

‘No.’ he said through a clenched jaw.

‘Then why just sit here ? Are you waiting for somebody to put you out of your misery?’

‘Try, elf.’

She laughed as she grabbed an apple from her bag and took a large bite out of it, the sound piercing the air. She chewed loudly.

‘I have absolutely no interest in killing you. Why would I? I don't even know what you've done. But I can sure as shit say that hunting an Archdemon is a much more effective way of punishing yourself than what you're doing now.’

‘The chantry placed me in here.’ he corrected her.

She had the gall to raise a sceptical brow at him.

‘Did you help them put the shackles on, too? No one makes you do anything, I’m sure of it.’

‘You bas like to talk.’

‘Communication should always be the first response to discord, and killing second. So they say.’

Her glittering eyes and holstered blade told him all he needed to know about her preference.

‘You will not find much welcome here,’ he said, remembering the chatter.

‘Ah, yeah? Think there’s enough room in that cage for me too, just in case?’

‘The Wardens have been declared traitors to your crown.’

‘It's a lie. The king, the wardens, they were all abandoned at the battle by the same asshole whose framing us now.’

'Scheming basra.'

'We have no choice being here. We need food. We have no coin. I don't even know what we think we're doing .’

‘So you run, because your duty is difficult.’

She frowned. ‘Duty.’ she spat back at him. 'Fucking duty, huh? I'm just trying to survive. Like I said, I'm not good and right now I'm being something I'm not . I mean look at me, I find it easier to be honest with criminals than with my own companions for shitsake. And you're still judging me, so what does that say?’

‘I am beyond the judgement of another. Though none have been foolish enough to seek counsel from me.’

'That's a shame. You seem wise.’

'It was not wisdom that led me here.’

'Everyone makes mistakes,’ she said, too casually.

He wanted to call her ignorant, if he didn't think back to an earlier comment. I would be in a cage or worse if they hadn't made me a Grey Warden. He wondered if she even believed that statement herself. Was she a criminal, walking free but somehow tethered to the order? Much of the way Wardens operated was a mystery even to the most skilled Qunari spies, but it was known that they would not shirk the help of even a single criminal in a time of crisis.

A Blight counted well enough as one of those.

'So what's your name?’ she asked. ‘Since we aren't strangers anymore.’

That also seemed too flippant a comment. Granted, nobody else sat at his cage, made him run his mouth, stilted a conversation as it was. He had not spoken to anybody so easily in weeks.

‘Well?’

'I am Sten of the Beresaad.' Perhaps it was fine if at least one of them knew before he died.

'What’s a Beresaad?'

'The vanguard of the Qunari.’

‘Wow,’ she breathed, almost taken aback by something she knew nothing about. ‘My name’s Syld. I’m not of anything. Nice to meet you, for what it’s worth.’

‘Propriety. Unexpected. Do you mock me?’

This seemed to amuse her, as she stifled laughter. ‘No?’

‘Then you show manners that I have not come to expect in these lands.’

‘You are the first person to ever say anything positive about my manners. So you're a Qunari, huh? Whatever the shit that is. They all as big as you?’

'Yes.’

‘What's up with your forehead- sorry, damn, that was rude.’

Before he could repy, somebody shouted at them. The dog, who had been dosing beside her, was on its feet in seconds. They both glanced towards the sound of gruff voices and heavy armour. His guards were returning, with a lean to them that implied intoxication, stumbling down the path straight from the tavern.

'Hey, you there! What do you bloody well think you're doing?’

She turned back to him and made a face. ‘Oof, you even got guards? You have fun with that.’

She stood and dusted herself off, turned towards them all chipper. Her dog did not share the mood.

'Nothing! Was just talking to the prisoner here.’

'Be on your way, elf,’ the older of them snapped, moustache moving furiously. ‘That animal ain't worth it.’

She saluted them mockingly. She threw a look over her shoulder and winked at him, and then turned back for the town.

Not the fields, not the highway. Assuredness in her step. Hands not trembling.

She was out of ear and eye sight when their viciousness ramped up. 'The fuck do you think you’re doing, talkin’ to people like that? You’re gonna rot in there you miserable piece of-’ A boot clattered on the edge of the cage, piercing the night.

Another kick and he kept his eyes on his own hands, and his mouth shut.

Little rotation and breaks few and far between had put an edge to them. This routine had turned them vicious. Antsy. Angry. The older one, anyway. Always red in the face, spitting things that made parents cover their children’s ears. The younger looked on with a kind of mirthless, pitiless acceptance and said very little. Unkind times made unkind people cruel, and he was their animal in their cage. Nothing he couldn’t say he deserved.

But he was still an animal they feared. And so they should.

He wondered, if and when she found out what he had done, if she would too.

Chapter Text


She clicked the trap down into place. Ready and tight as a bow-string, she tapped a branch at its center to test it and delighted at the way the sharp teeth slammed together, snapping it in half.

Allison gasped as if she had just performed a magic trick and clapped her hands twice at the sight.

Syld glanced over at Leliana from where she crouched, tinkering with her own and leaning in beside her. She looked just as delighted. Leliana’s own traps were pristine. Her fingers were deft and did far better work, had made six to her three. It had been a long time since she’d built one and she felt clumsy with it.

‘I don't know how I- it’s very nice of you to…’

‘Not to worry,’ Leliana said kindly.

This had to be the mousiest little shem she had ever met. Syld doubted severely that a few traps were going to stop the horde of darkspawn, but if it helped with that nervousness of hers, she was glad for it.

They all knelt in what was almost a conspiratory circle, Alistair roughhousing with Hobbs on the sidelines, looking in with the mild curiosity of someone who may or may not have got a (thankfully) armoured leg stuck in such a trap at Ostagar. Morrigan lingered close by, bored for the way she inspected the invisible dirt under her nails.

‘Here, let’s show you how to set them again so you don’t lose a limb.’

‘Ah, g-good idea.’

She listened to Leliana go through the process once more meticulously, and Allison nodded, wide-eyed. She didn’t look so scared of them now, a fidgety thing picking at the hem of her dress where it flared out around her knees, calming under the lilt of Leliana’s words. She wasn’t the only one in Lothering that walked around like their bones were rattling.

Halfway through the lesson a few vulgar shouts echoed from the edge of town, making Allison flinch. Syld strained to see over her shoulder.

‘What is that?’

‘The guards yell sometimes.’

‘They have a prisoner in a cage out there,’ Leliana clarified. She had a heavy set to her brow and Syld didn’t think she had yet seen her so unimpressed. ‘I have no doubt they’re losing their wits just as much as the rest of us, but it is terribly unnecessary.’

'It makes me nervous.’ Allison admitted.

They were being very foul indeed, disrupting the already static uncomfortable air, and whatever peace Lothering clung to. Villagers and refugees regarded the noise anxiously.

And Sten of the Beresaad was taking it like a champ.

When Allison was able to repeat the process without losing her fingers, Syld stood and dusted off her knees.

‘Allison,’ she said, stern, and the girl's eyes darted up, her hand already outstretched to give Leliana her silvers. 'Do yourself a favour and get out of here. Find somewhere else to set up those traps.’

'But my home is…’

'A house is just a house. A home is for living people, okay?’

She looked at Syld like she was a little odd, but nodded regardless. They left the girl with her burlap of new traps.

‘I don’t imagine you needed to make traps like that in the alienage.’

She glanced over at Leliana. ‘We have pretty big rats.’

Leliana smiled at her like she was joking. She wished she was.

The comment had an edge of delicate curiosity to it that made Syld think she was going to ask more about the connection between a city girl and heavy duty hunting traps, but she didn’t. She seemed the niggling, frustratingly patient type.

‘Can I ask why it is we still linger here?’ Morrigan asked her, at least waiting until they were out of earshot of Allison.

‘These people need help.’ Leliana cut in.

‘If these people were smart , this village would be empty.’

But panicking people were not smart, hordes of them even more so.

‘These people have been abandoned by their own Bann. Who would help them if not us?’ Alistair demanded.

‘Far be it for me to remind you exactly who you are.’

‘A Grey Warden. I got that, you know, when I became a Grey Warden.’

‘Suppose you look at the bigger picture for a moment and stop dallying with every motherless child and every foolish girl who doesn’t know how to run when they should.’

‘And here I thought your cruelty was superficial. You know, angry shell and soft, gooey centre.’

‘I’m not an egg .’

Leliana cleared her throat to catch Syld’s attention. The bickering continued on downwind. ‘I have some belongings to collect in the chantry.’

‘Do these belongings include armour? I was starting to wonder if you planned on helping us fight the archdemon in a dress.’

‘Perish the thought.’

‘As much as pink suits you.’

Leliana laughed, soft and lilting. ‘This pink is atrocious, and it is such cumbersome material.’

As it always did, their fighting eased off into an awkward silence. Judging by the look on Alistair’s face Morrigan had once again gotten in the last cutting insult.

 


 

Threes. Everyone always said it happened in threes. No one ever mentioned the fours, fives and sixes.

Maybe her luck was just like that, though.

And she should have known. They had been shaken awake that morning, eyes opening to the shadow of a Templar none too keen to find more stragglers desperate for shelter in Lothering. She had read the place right. He welcomed them with a warning. There was an edge-of-your-seat kind of panic that was driving people together, but to clash in an inevitable way. It split families apart. It drove people to the dirt under street lamps. If he looked at them with suspicion for being Wardens, he said nothing.

They’d cleaned the highway for them, after all.

One. One was Loghain's men, their blood all over the tavern walls. She had been angry, no mistake. Might have even killed them all if Leliana hadn’t been there.

Being inside the chantry was no help. It was warm, and fretful. Quiet like the early hours. Chanting, as Syld had expected, but no smooth voices and echoes of the sappy prayers of good harvests and good-looking children, or whatever it was that people prayed about. There was lots of trembling in the octaves, fast words she barely caught.

She felt a little claustrophobic in this place of worship. Maybe it was ignorant to generalise an entire religion, but she hadn’t met an Andrastian that hadn’t tried to school her morally or call her a heathen for questioning it.

Well, Leliana hadn’t done any of that yet, but she wouldn’t hold her breath.

Speaking of the lay sister. Syld watched her return from the chantry dorms positively glowing in a set of chainmail. Where a chantry biddy had managed to find such well-maintained armour and make it look like a second skin, Syld was entirely too curious. Leliana got caught up with a conversation with Bryant, one of the least stuffy Templars. Lothering might have fallen into chaos if it hadn’t been for Ser Bryant and the revered mother, all of them dangling over a chasm that promised darkspawn and eventual annihilation.

How often her mind seemed to stray to the extremes.

She might have tried uniting with Morrigan in that moment for the way she looked just as uncomfortable in these confining walls, except the witch’s eyes were like daggers and her tongue just as sharp, and she kept herself off to the side.

Templars. Templars everywhere.

‘Syl, do you have a moment?’

Chewing on a hangnail, and glad for the reprieve of Leliana and Bryant’s borderline flirting, she allowed herself to be beckoned by Alistair.

He stood by a man. Unshaved, ragged and weather worn, the lushest set of eyelashes she had ever seen on a man.

‘This is Ser Donall. He’s a knight from Redcliffe. Syl,’ Alistair’s voice bordered on uncomfortable. ‘Do you still have that locket we found on the highway?’

She shared an uneasy look with Alistair, and started to sling her pack around to her front, digging through it.

‘My fellow knight Ser Henric was supposed to meet me here, days ago.’ Donall said, quietly.

‘If this is the same Henric, then your friend is dead. He, um, he had this —’ She dug around in her pack, found the token and the note, wrapped in a shoddy bundle of cloth she’d rustled up, and held her hand out. Alistair winced at her bluntness. ‘—on him.’

Donall, still recovering from the verbal slap, gently took it from her and unbound the cloth.

‘He is dead,’ he said, flat, the air leaving his chest. ‘His locket? And a note… something, something about a scholar. Maker’s Mercy… ah, thank you my lady. I would never have known otherwise. I dread to think how many of us have met similar fates on this mad quest.’

‘I’m really sorry about your friend.’ she said honestly.

‘Thank you.’

‘And we killed most of the shithead bandits that did it.’

Donall blinked, looked around, maybe to see if the Maker was going to smite her where she stood and whether or not he was in the splash zone. None of the priestesses seemed to hear.

‘Well… thank you, my lady.’ He did look a little better for it. She reasoned that if somebody had killed her friend she would either want to deal with them herself or be told they were already rotting on the ground. They had seemed a simple enough ragtag bunch of idiots capitalising off the panic, and in retrospect they had chosen their victims poorly in them. One grieving Templar, one Wild Witch. And she, well. Some unchecked bloodlust. A thing for hearing dirtbags beg for their lives. Now she felt bad for letting some of them live.

‘What even brings you here, Donall? Anyone in their right mind is fleeing the darkspawn.’

‘I fear the Arl has fallen gravely ill.’

Alistair responded interestingly to that. Shocked to the point that he mouth fell open, some kind of panic that reminded her of the way he had responded to Duncan’s death. At that point in time Syld, on the occasion shrewder than most gave her credit for, could only wonder why the dwindling life of some Arl could make him so uneasy, and it further highlighted how little they knew about each other.

‘If the Arl is sick, ser, what are you doing here?’

‘By order, every knight in Redcliffe has gone in search for the Urn of Sacred Ashes. It is said that Andraste’s Ashes can cure any illness. But I fear we are chasing a fable. With each day, my hope dims.’

She tried not to snort. It amounted to nonsensical supersticion, but she had seen a lot of things in the last few days that defied nonsense, much of it had become her harsh reality. There could be an Urn out there, filled with the Ashes of the… Maker’s bride? What a load of shit.

‘We desperately need to see the arl.’ Alistair said.

‘Is that so? And what business would you have with him?’

Her hackles rose before she could stop them. ‘Besides the mounting darkspawn threat? Oh, just to see the sights of Redcliffe from his tower, maybe. I assume he has a tower.’

'I… beg your pardon, my lady. I meant no suspicion on my part.’

‘Forgive my rudeness .’ The word was punctuated with a look her way. ‘This is Syld, the latest member of the Grey Wardens. The Teyrn has named us traitors, Donall. We need Eamon’s support.’

‘Yes, well, whatever Loghain has done, the arl’s health is my only concern at this point in time.’

‘You know he’s probably got his slimy fingers stuck in that business, though.’ Syld interjected.

Both Donall and Alistair looked at her with veritable confusion.

‘You don’t think it’s a spectacular coincidence that he’s fallen ill around the same time Loghain left the king for dead, do you?’

The implications of her statement dawned on both of them and she had to stop herself from rolling her eyes.

Alistair dragged a hand over his mouth, suddenly distraught. ‘If he had planned that… if he had planned that before abandoning the King…?’

Donall sighed, weary. ‘Such thoughts do not sit well with me. I must return to Redcliffe soon, to tell the arlessa that this is a quest of desperation and nothing more. Perhaps I can pass on this knowledge, though I hope desperately it is not true. I best be on my way. Farewell Alistair, my lady, you have been most helpful. I am glad you live.’

‘Good luck,’ Alistair offered, as Donall gathered his things and made a haste exit past them, grasping and shaking Alistair’s shoulder in farewell as he did so. He stared after Donall for a long, troubled moment.

‘What was all that about?’

Alistair blinked, settling his eyes back to her and the look she was giving him. Cat-eyed now, and very curious.

‘What do you mean? I haven’t seen Donall in quite a while.’

‘Do you know him?’

‘Um…Donall?’ he said, mildly confused.

'No. Eamon.’

Alistair scratched the back of his head. ‘Yes, I did.’

‘That might have been useful information to us, don’t you think? He’ll take us more seriously if he has a friend amongst us. At the very least we won’t get thrown straight into prison when we arrive at Redcliffe.’

‘Yes, well… I wouldn’t know about that.’ He nodded in another direction, looking like he wanted to take flight. ‘Shall we press on? Being in the chantry is making me… itchy .’

With that, she couldn’t agree more.

On their way back to steal Leliana from Ser Bryant, she felt a frantic tug on her arm.

‘Ohhh, Maker.’

Alistair pointed towards Morrigan and a Templar. He had a hand on his blade.

Two.

Morrigan looked out of place. She didn’t exactly give off waves of rainbow and sunshine at the best of times, and she had a sourer tongue than most, but she was not stupid enough to start a confrontation surrounded by those that hunted down apostate mages for a living.

When the Templar took an unnecessary step towards her, instinct kicked in and Syld stomped between the two of them and shook Alistair off when he tried to stop her. She all but rounded on the templar, and went up to the tips of her toes to make him flinch back.

‘What do you think you’re doing?’ she demanded.

‘Stay out of Templar business.’

‘Oh, stay out of it? While your eyes linger overmore?’ Morrigan sneered at him.

‘We want no trouble here.’ he said, all muffled by his great, stupid helm.

‘You’re threatening my friend.’

‘I know what your friend is-’

What , an innocent bystander? She’s just standing here!’ Syld challenged.

Alistair entered the dispute with his hands raised, trying to calm the tension. ‘Hey now. This doesn’t have to be a thing.’

‘Look at him! He’s got a hand on his weapon. He’s making it a thing.’

‘Come on, can you blame him? It’s Morrigan. She’s terrifying.’

Morrigan looked as if she’d never received a better compliment.

‘Listen, ser, we were on our way out anyway-’

‘Are you threatened by us?’ Syld interrupted him, her tone goading.

‘Hardly,’ the Templar scoffed.

‘Then mind your own fucking business.’

‘Syld!’ Alistair said, exasperated.

‘Get her in check,’ the Templar warned him, completely looking over her head.

She bristled at that. ‘He’s not my keeper.’

‘Leave it, Syld.’ She could here the plea in Alistair's voice, felt another hand on her arm.

‘Maybe you need one.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Don’t you know your kind last longer with manners?’

Alistair swore under his breath. His grip tightened, maybe at the sound of her fists clenching so hard that her armour started to creak.

'My kind? They do, do they?’ she said, quietly. 'If I wasn’t a Warden I’d-’

‘You’re lucky Ser Bryant has stayed our weapons, Knife-ear.’

She could tell it just slipped out. Just his eyes, bulging that little bit, what little she could see. The stutter that followed.

Didn’t change a thing.

 


 

She wasn’t exactly sure how it had escalated to the point where she’d threatened to jab out the templar’s eyeballs because trust me, I’ve done it before , but by that point Alistair had an arm about her waist, the Revered Mother was kicking them out, and they’d all agreed that moving forward Tarasylde would not be heading negotiations.

The chantry yard was in an uproar, but not because of her. A Chasind man was screaming at the top of his lungs and a crowd had gathered about. Hobbs was barking, vicious and deafening at the sight of her struggling in Alistair’s arms, shouting to be put down.

Alistair deposited her on the ground.

'Calm down,’ he said bluntly. 'And calm him down.’

She crouched on her toes immediately, attentions turning to Hobbs. She held him close to stop him from jumping about. She could feel the eyes of people staring, tried to ignore them and cooed an apology until he quietened once more, and she breathed deeply to cool her boiling blood.

She tried to pretend like they weren’t talking about her. Leliana and Alistair speaking quickly to Ser Bryant and the revered mother, taming their concerns about allowing such a woman like her to remain unchecked in Lothering.

She’s been through a lot. She’s young. She’s...

Three. Fucking three.

She was entirely caught off guard when the large Chasind man began screaming at her instead, casting a shadow over her and Hobbs. It set him off again immediately, and she had to put her hand at his hackles and ease him back.

‘This elf! Can you not see the vile blackness that fills her!’

‘Please! Stop!’ somebody begged. ‘You’re scaring the children talking like that!’

‘They should be! Better to slit their throats now than let them suffer at darkspawn hands!’

The crowd was growing, from his spectacle and hers. They cried for him to stop. And still Hobbs barked, setting off the shrieks of a newborn.

It was too much.

Hobbs ,’ she snarled, and the hound instantly fell silent and put his nose to the ground. She whirled on the Chasind as she stood, her head still full of foul anger, and gave him a hard shove to make distance between them. ‘What the fuck are you doing? Why are you trying to scare these people, man?’

‘They should be! Should be scared! The darkspawn are upon us, they are all dead! Every last woman and child, dead!’ he cried, heading whipping around to eye each and every villager. He grabbed for her arm and she flinched away, threatened him with a fist. ‘You… you ! You will be the first of those who would destroy us! I can smell it, foul, evil, evil evil.’

‘You need to- you need to stop , okay.’

‘I will not be silent! I watched the black horde descend on my people! Darkness swallowed the marshes whole,’ he wailed, so close she felt spittle hit her cheek, could see the shadows were heavy under his eyes, veins in his neck thick and stark. He looked at her with a haunted kind of desperation.

Tears streamed down his face.

‘Your… people died.’ she echoed.

He stared at her so long she thought he couldn’t comprehend her. And then an awful sob wracked him. ‘My family…’ he gasped, voice brittle like glass, too quiet for the bellows he was capable of.

And then he started to crumple. A slow descent to the ground at her feet.

All at once she felt numb, cold, the anger gone from her. Looking around she saw the fear in everyone’s faces, fear of this broken man. Fear of her.

Very slowly she crouched to meet his gaze. She tried to be steady. She tried to let him know that she saw him, heard him.

‘What happened?’

‘My clan…’ he continued, ‘all of them… butchered. Those creatures butchered them. We cannot escape them. We cannot escape!’

‘Hey,’ she hushed, as his voice started to rise again. ‘You escaped, didn’t you?’

‘I… I ran… I ran, listening to the sounds of my wife’s screams. I ran as they dragged her off.’ He reached again, so slowly and gently this time that she let him. She held her breath as he pinched a few strands of her hair between his fingers, trembling. ‘She had hair the same colour as yours. Maybe a… maybe a little more… curl. So big. Wild and-’ his voice caught in his throat.

‘I’m sorry.’ she said. ‘Truly, I am.’

He cried deeply then, so deeply she had to remind him to breathe.

She had heard many stories of the Chasind, the type you tell over campfires in the woods. A tale of savages that one wouldn’t want to stumble upon in said woods. Because they could be vicious, and they could make you suffer.

She looked about and saw that people simply did not understand him.

He moaned quietly. ‘I… I should not have come here. I should not have come.’

They sat crouched low to the ground for a long time until he cried himself out. She stood as he did and was startled when he left without another word, and she had a mind to follow him, terrified of what he was going to do. Instead she remained still, and helplessly watched his retreating back. He went in too straight an aimless line.

The silence left in his wake was tangible.

‘We’re all dead. We’re all gonna die.’ someone said, hopelessly.

Already there was a burst of mutterings, another wave of despair, but Syld had no mind for it.

‘Stop it, the lot of you.’ she said, sounding too gruff, and she tried to pretend it wasn't because the Chasind had left her throat all tight. ‘You all have better things to do.’

‘And why should we listen to the likes of you? We just saw you get tossed from the chantry! You’re no better than that Chasind savage.’

She looked about for her companions. She finally noticed the many eyes on her. Alistair, patting Hobbs down. Morrigan, her gaze unreadable. Leliana stood with the revered mother and Bryant up the steps, looking grim upon the spectacle.

‘Maybe I’m not.’ she agreed, digging the heel of her palm into her eye socket, trying to reach the place where her head ached suddenly.

‘There’s no hope for any of us.’

‘Of course there’s hope.’ she said firmly, her voice rising so the entire crowd could hear. ‘It’s only when you lie down and give up that you have no hope, so stop talking like that fucking doomsayer, and keep moving, and don’t give up.’

Another murmur rippled through the crowd, but it was decidedly more positive than the last.

Syld glanced over, just as the Chantry doors were shut on her for good. She excused herself from the growing enthusiasm of the crowd to meet with the rest of her party.

There was a moment of awkward silence that followed, as nobody was quite sure how to proceed after such a spectacle.

She knew. Her body did, at least. She turned away from them, feet already taking her out of the yard, brisque. No one called out for her and she wasn’t sure if that was better or worse.

She kept walking and kept thinking of his face, talking about a dead wife, reliving it.

She walked as far as the cage before she stopped to even consider what exactly her plan was. Distance? Time? Escape?

The Qunari?

He sat squashed at the bottom of the cage, not that she expected anything different. She opened her mouth to speak but instead took a squeaky inhale at the sight of him. For some reason it had been easier at night to process just how big he was. A great hulking thing, head bent, eyes closed.

'Hey.’ she said, shaking off her nerve and walking closer.

His eyes remained closed, giving no indication that he had heard her.

She froze again when she noticed there was very little movement in that big chest of his.

‘Shit, are you dead?’

His eyes opened in an instant. Underneath that heavy set brow they were like pinpricks. Bright, strange. She hadn’t noticed it as much last night. Glittery came to mind before she banished it, because she realised she was still just gawking at him like an idiot.

‘Not dead,’ she breathed.

‘You are crying again.’ he said.

She couldn’t even find it in herself to be mad or deny it. She knew how red her face must be. ‘Yeah.’ she agreed. I just royally fucked up again, Sten of the Beresaad.

It was just too bad that everyone but her had to be surprised about that. In truth she had amounted to little more than a thief and alienage reject in Denerim. She was no liberator.

She sniffed. ‘So, um, you’re still a scary fucker in the daylight, aren’t you.’

'I am not here to amuse you, elf.’ It sounded like a warning, albeit a tired one. His voice was deep, his accent making the words hard and biting.

‘I’m easily amused, to be honest.’

He studied her for a long, unnerving, unblinking moment, and she had to stop herself from flinching back when he grappled with the iron bars and unsurely found his feet.

He towered over her.

The step she took back was instinct alone.

Her neck was craning now. If there was anything that could drive the hoards away it was gauging the full spectrum of his height.

He was terrifying, truly. Built of thick muscle, neck almost like the trunk of a tree. Some alien gauntness in the grey of his flesh. A strange crest at his forehead. The spatter of red on his chest was stark in the daylight, old and crumbling and almost gone in some places.

She muttered under her breath, cleared her throat for confidence. ‘So, ah, Qunari, right? Did I say that-’

‘What do you want, Warden.’

She frowned, chewed on her bottom lip and felt foolish and desperate. ‘I just… I saw you, and our conversation really helped last night so I thought-’

‘Hey! Back away from the cage if you know what’s good for you!’ Two guards from the night before swooped in on her.

The younger one eyed her suspiciously. ' You again. What do you want?'

'I was just having a few more words with the Qunari.'

‘What are you playing at?’

'I'm not playing at anything.'

'Just a "few more words" with this blighted animal here. Right. You gotta be raving mad.’

'I can handle him.'

The elder of them snorted, rustling his moustache. ‘Oh you can , can you? You even know what he done? Look at her, Holt, she doesn’t even know. You dumb girl. He’s a Blighted child-killer.’

Four.

She froze. ‘What?’

‘That’s right.’

She gave him a sidelong glance, hoping to give the Qunari a chance to deny it. He did not. He stared, silent, grim. Accepting. She felt ill.

‘Killed ‘em with his bare hands. Still wanna chat, huh? Piss off, girl.’

She didn’t even notice Hobbs until he made a deep noise from behind the guards that made everyone visibly flinch. The others were not far in the distance.

'My dog doesn't like the tone you're taking with me.’ she said, but too quiet. She didn’t look at the Qunari again.

She ignored the guards as she barged passed. The one she knocked into called her something awful but then held his tongue when Hobbs reiterated that dangerous noise again.

Still numb, she met her party halfway.

‘I feel like you need a leash or something,’ Alistair said.

‘’Tis possible she might just chew right through it.’

‘Sorry,’ she said quietly.

Leliana and Morrigan shared a glance. Alistair remained oblivious.

‘Syl, what is your obsession with befriending blighters locked in cages?’ he demanded. ‘Something tells me this one's not going to pull a key out of his sphincter. You really shouldn't have been talking to him.’

There was an uncomfortable charge in the air, and Leliana and Morrigan shrank back out of the confrontation. She felt Hobbs bow into her, showing teeth. She hated this back and forth. They acted uncoordinated with each other, new and fresh, like strangers.

They were.

‘I know.’ she said, putting a hand on Hobbs to soothe him.

‘Right, well…’ Alistair trailed off, not expecting her to have agreed. ‘What did he do, anyway?’

She glanced at Leliana, who looked terribly sad. 'The revered mother said he slaughtered an entire family. Even the children.'

Felt her stomach drop at that, a sick feeling that went all the way to her toes. She looked at Alistair, whose mouth formed a grim line. There was nothing smug about him at that moment.

Her eyes strayed back to the cage. He stood very still, eyes closed, unmoving. From this distance, she barely caught the breath in his chest.

She had befriended him so easily. She was a fool.

‘Was it some kind of...? Was he attacked?’

Leliana sighed. ‘I do not know the details, only that it was a massacre. He is a strange man. Did you know, he waited days for the knights to arrive? He put up no fight when they restrained him.’

And there it was. The disconnect. There was no way the Lothering guards could have detained someone like him. He was possibly the most enormous man she'd ever seen. Beast. Qunari. He had hands like a brute, arms like he’d lugged big things around all his life, possibly a sword that he was quite sufficient in cleaving things in half with. Those rusted cage bars would be nothing to him. And yet he had spoken so reservedly. Aware of his crimes. At ease with his punishment.

Kind to her, in his way.

‘Are you alright, Syl?’

The incident in the chantry seemed so far away now that she almost thought Leliana meant...

‘I’m fine.’

She had calmed down enough then to realise her anger had gotten the best of her. Hindsight and all that. She thought Leliana would be disgusted with her for bringing such violence and foul language into her Maker’s house. Instead she tutted, and made Syld feel like a child. She didn’t know what was worse. She'd always hated the way her father had reprimanded her like that.

‘Well…’ Leliana said, too lightly for the heavy atmosphere. ‘Shall we take another look over the Chanters board?’

Alistair looked unsure. ‘Think they’ll want to pay us anything after… that ?’

‘It is desperate times. I’m sure they’ll forgive a bit of bad language.’ Leniana waved his concern off.

‘Syld threatened to gouge his eyeballs out.’

‘But I didn’t, did I?’ Syld snapped at him, making him flinch. It was the first rush of blood again, coming back to herself.

‘Who knows what you might have done if I hadn’t dragged you out.’

‘You don’t think you overreacted a bit, no?’ Leliana suggested.

She was not made for this. She was no commander. The idea of duty had always been an abhorrent one. Now she felt it all digging into her, this expectation, this eyeglass fixed on all her flaws. The very big one being that she’d never had much patience for a man with authority and that the anger in her didn’t need much to spark it.

‘Let’s just look at this damn board.’

Leliana still carried her old robes, spattered with blood and ripped up the side for easy access to a hidden blade she’d made use of in the tavern scuffle. She looked this way and that, and then handed them to Hobbs and said “go to town” and “don’t tell the revered mother”. He did the first, and wasn’t physically capable of doing the second.

Chapter Text

lothering pt 3

 


 

Being on her knees, gloves off and fingers deep in the dirt was a moment she needed. Carefully taking roots from the ground, sometimes even closing her eyes, thinking and feeling rather than seeing. The fields were peaceful and far enough removed from Lothering and every stupid mistake she'd made since arriving to feel alone and grounded in the work.

And then Morrigan stood some distance beside her and Syld lost her breath, so lost in her thoughts she was that she’d completely forgotten about her foraging partner. Morrigan, whose own pouch was now full and her fingers filthy, stood by with her arms crossed and eyes off in the distance. It made Syld realise just how slowly she had been working.

She focussed back on the root she was carefully trying to pull from the thick, rich soil for the old shem running the makeshift infirmary. Lothering was fertile land and the patch of elfroot had been easy enough to find. It was a shame that it was about to be pillaged.

‘Why did you involve yourself?’ Morrigan asked suddenly, which made her pause, considering the ground.

‘I don't know. I just reacted.’

When Morrigan said nothing, she looked up and over to see a stern look and a raised eyebrow.

Syld sighed. ‘Okay, fine. I hate the chantry. I was on edge.’

‘You might have reminded yourself of the low profile we are trying to keep.’

She yanked a little too hard at that and heard a snap of a few nerves in the ground and winced. ‘I was a violent idiot, is that what you want me to say?’

There was heat on the back of her neck.

‘It was unnecessary.’ Morrigan said, quite indifferently, still looking away.

‘He was about to draw his sword on you.’

‘I have had enough years to fight my own battles. That Templar was not worth the scene you made.’

Syld said nothing, though she had to bite her tongue to do so. Now she felt even more foolish, to have another reprimand thrown in her face instead of thanks. She picked up the pace of her work, finding little peace now in the dirt. They hardly spoke again. When it came time to brewing the poultices Morrigan did so with little complaint, and Syld slid her gauntlets back on, still feeling the granules of soil on her skin despite how hard she had wiped her hands on her trousers.

On their way back her gaze was pulled towards the big rusty cage, despite herself. She saw the Qunari sitting quietly, and the guards taunting him, quieter now.

At the sight of her they promptly shut their mouths and glared, and waited for her to pass. The Qunari did not look her way at all.

Morrigan leaned in close. ‘What did you discover about the prisoner when you spoke to him?’

That I’m a fucking moron.

‘He’s a Qunari. I don’t think he’s from here.’ She swallowed, hard. ‘He didn’t say much else.’

‘He’s big.’ Morrigan said, knowing it was an understatement. ‘Do you think he knows how to use a weapon?’

Those muscles of his would make sense. Being a vanguard of something did, too.

‘Probably. How else would he have killed all those people?’

‘With his bare hands, I heard.’

‘Well, there you go. Come on, we’ve got shit to do.’

 


 

They'd managed to get most of the blood out of the tavern floorboards, she noted dully. It hadn't been a pretty scrap with Loghain's men.

Thinking about it made her take a look at the lay sister, deep in a conversation with Morrigan that might have bordered on an argument for their pinched voices. Something about the Maker and belief and chaos.

She was still trying to figure out if Leliana was insane or lying, but Syld couldn't imagine why somebody would lie to involve themselves in a Grey Warden quest that would most likely lead to death and destruction, so that led her back to her first deduction. She was absolutely batshit to have taken Syld's non-committal “you're insane but you're good with that knife” as affirmation enough to keep tagging along.

But it was hard to imagine somebody with such a kind, lilting way about her to be so. Leliana was sharper than a blade. Dangerously disarming. And Orlesian, which made her fascinating for the fact that she was born far away from the shitstain on Thedas that she called home. But Syld was anything if not wary for every human that crossed her path. Especially religious ones. Hearing voices from a deity aside, chantry people irked her.

But Leliana had stayed in Lothering because she wanted to help these poor, desperate people, and she had done it without a second thought. She hadn’t left them for dead. That counted, too. Kindness was about to become scarce, it was a natural tactic of survival. The small things counted .

And her hair reminded her of Shianni. It was a foolish thing.

The tavern was overcrowded, warm, smelt like spilt beer and sweat. They sat huddled on the midst of it at a small table, elbows knocking into them on the occasion. Spirits grew higher as inhibitions dropped lower.

She shoved a bread roll into her mouth. Her father had always taught her manners at the table and these manners didn’t include using the palm of her hand to shovel food faster into her face, but she was starving . She barely heard the conversation around her for all it was drowned in the sea of yelling and raucous laughter.

‘So, your arl is dying.’ Morrigan said, seemingly glad to steer the conversation away from omnipotent deities. ‘I suppose nothing can ever be easy?’

‘Ah, I see you're charming as always.’ Alistair said mildly.

‘Practical, rather. Wouldn’t it be wiser to forego Redcliffe altogether?’

Alistair frowned. ‘Eamon would be a powerful ally to the Grey Wardens. If we can offer any help, we should.’

‘Hm, the Grey Wardens. All two of you.’

‘If we stick to the plan we’ll have our alliances soon enough.’

‘And until then? Our merry band of four will just traverse Ferelden freely during the throes of war?’

Alistair sighed. ‘Your point, Morrigan?’

‘My point is that our individual skill will not make up for our lack of numbers. If we are to do this mad thing, then we must not squander our opportunities.’

'What opportunities.’

'Sitting in that chantry cage out there is a proud and powerful creature. You would be a fool to not see he was made for combat. Instead he is wasting away.’ Morrigan jabbed her spoon at each and every one of them, purposefully flicking soup Alistair’s way.

‘Did you just say “proud and powerful creature”? Seriously?’ Alistair repeated through a mouthful of chicken, wiping the potato soup off his sleeve. He looked disgusted. ‘He didn't look so proud to me.’

Morrigan realized she would get nowhere with the idealistic Templar and turned in her seat. Syld’s third bread roll paused inches from her mouth. She realized she hadn’t been paying attention to the turn of conversation and that Morrigan was now looking to her. For a second she was convinced they’d brought it back to her poor behaviour this morning and she was about to get another earful.

‘Warden, it is a waste to leave him in there.’

Syld pushed the whole roll into her mouth and nodded, finally caught up.

‘And what exactly are you suggesting?’ Alistair said, demanding her attention again. She rolled her eyes over to him.

‘Are you really so daft?’

‘No! More so… bewildered! Why would you even take that risk?’

‘He seems docile, does he not?’

Syld grabbed another roll and pulled bread apart with her fingers absently, listening to their back and forth.

‘You haven’t considered that it might be an act? That he’s waiting for an opportune moment to strike?’

‘He is not a wolf hunting his dinner.’

‘He’s not going to do anything.’ Syld interjected.

‘How can you be so sure of that?’

‘Because he wants to die.’

That stunned Alistair into silence. It turned the other two grim.

‘Maybe he deserves to.’ he said bluntly, after he had recovered. ‘That petty creature can rot in there.’

Leliana frowned at this. ‘ No life is petty.’

'The act of murder is-’

'Horrendous. Unforgivable. But you would see him left to the darkspawn, forced into their ranks? No one deserves that.’

'Darkspawn no, I doubt anybody would want to meet that one on the battlefield.’ Morrigan added.

'Do people not deserve to face their mistakes?’ Leliana said quietly, under all the noise, reproachful, and they had to strain to hear.

For a moment Syld was surprised to find Leliana and Morrigan on the same side about this.

‘He killed children.’ Syld said, flatly. They all looked at her, like her tone had been unfamiliar. ‘That’s a pretty big mistake, Leliana.’

‘Do guilty people not deserve a chance to atone? A chance to be forgiven?’

‘You would forgive a murderer of children?’ Alistair demanded.

'Would your Maker forgive him? Is that what he's preaching in your ear?’ Syld asked, something cold and hard in her voice.

There was a flash in Leliana’s eyes, like a wavering, but she held firm. ‘There is more to him. I believe there is more to that Qunari.’

She wanted to hate Leliana, then. But she knew it was because she had the unfortunate privilege of knowing him before knowing all his deeds, and she had even liked the Qunari. He was quiet. Thoughtful, even. Impervious to her. Even starved and weak, he seemed anything but incessantly violent.

She hated this muddled grey feeling. She hated how Alistair stayed silent now, mulling over Leliana’s words. He was supposed to keep her feet firm on the ground. He was supposed to stay unflinching.

The silence was delicate, enclosed by the sounds around them. Merriment that was like glass, breakable, almost cold.

Were they really so desperate that they would accept a killer amongst their ranks?

I’m a killer . The words were bold in her head, a succinct thought. And she had a lot of excuses for that, too. A feeling niggled her, until she couldn’t handle being surrounded by so many people, oblivious to the awful thing they were now considering.

She grabbed a small loaf of sweet raisin bread, for dessert, and stuffed it into her pack and started to rise from her chair, as quickly and quietly as she could.

‘We have a spare greatsword. It turns out your habit of keeping around heavy, useless junk actually paid off.’ Morrigan sipped at her soup. ‘I retract my earlier criticism.’

‘Thank you?’

‘And if you cannot see a use for him, I suggest releasing him for mercy’s sake alone.’

‘Mercy ?’ Alistair scoffed. ‘I wouldn’t have expected that from you .’

Morrigan sneered. ‘I would also suggest Alistair take his place in the cage.’

Yes , that’s more like it.’

‘Idiot.’

‘Witch.’

‘I’m glad to see your memory is infallible, if nothing else.’

Alistair’s face flushed.

‘You two,’ Leliana said, almost bewildered, ‘never stop. You are like bickering children.’

‘And where are you going?’ Alistair demanded, watching Syld trying to squeeze through the crowd, having to knock a few people out of the way to do so. They were most of them numbed to the bone with alcohol and hardly noticed.

‘Hobbs loves sweet bread.’

‘Hobbs has never had sweet bread.’ Alistair reminded her slowly, like she was a child in the process of learning all her vowels. ‘I’m afraid they didn’t have “morning tea with grandma” essentials out at war.’

‘The poor pup was forced to stay outside.’

‘He was forced to stay outside because he smells like ass.’

You smell like ass,’ she yelled at Alistair over the hubbub, and turned away from the sight of him sniffing at himself, shoving her way out of the tavern while balancing the food and drink in her arms. She got a few uncomfortable looks as people tried to deduce who she had yelled this to. Or maybe it was just her new eye-jabbing reputation.

She sat down on the steps outside, and her hound was more than pleased to see her, bounding up from the place he'd miserably been curled up. She accepted a few of Hobbs kisses across her face before she hushed him, pushing him back into a sit.

It wasn't long before she heard the echo of her name behind her, the doors opening to Leliana tight on her heel, a burst of light and sound before the doors swung shut once more.

She glanced at Leliana once, and then settled her chin onto interlocked palms, elbows to knees, and sighed deeply. She shuffled over and offered a seat beside her. Leliana settled in gratefully.

'It is awfully crowded in there.’ Leliana commented. 'Though I suppose you can't really blame them for trying to forget for at least a moment.’

'Yeah.’ She pulled off a piece of bread, taking a bite and giving the rest to Hobbs. 'I'm surprised. Fear and alcohol usually breed violence.’

‘They are a good people here. Strangers come and go, power will shift, but Lothering will always remain the same. Stuck in the middle of everyone else's path.’

‘Why are so many still here?’

Leliana looked troubled. ‘I do not know. Hope?’

'It's not hope. They've seen enough wounded and refugees come through. I can see it in their faces. If there is hope then it's a thread.’ And very quickly now, it would begin to unravel.

She thought of Allison and her traps. She hoped the girl had moved on, taken their advice.

'Panic makes you freeze.’ Syld shrugged. 'Lothering is beautiful. It would be hard to let it go.’

'Would you stay?’

'Fuck no. I'm not an idiot. But I'm… I'm not judging them.’

'They would be wise to listen to you.’

‘Really?’ Syld scoffed. ‘I tend to make every situation worse, if you haven’t noticed.’

‘You should think of yourself more kindly. Maybe you are quick to anger, but the way you dealt with that Chasind? The way you settled that crowd? It was no word of mine that gave Bryant or the Revered Mother peace of mind. You have your own way of dealing with things.’

'My own way, huh?’

‘You are not so hot headed as you seem.’

Syld scoffed, only lightly. ‘You don’t know me at all. Or you haven't been paying attention.’

‘I know enough. I have had to learn to understand people. I am very good at it, trust me. And I know that whatever you decide to do with this strange Qunari of ours, it will not be out of poor judgement. I trust you.’

Syld didn’t know what to say to that. People’s trust of her came as rarely as her trust of others. Hopefully Leliana knew people as well as she claimed.

She swallowed out of discomfort for the strangely guised compliment.

'Is that why you're out here? To try and convince me that recruiting him is the right thing to do?’

‘I understand Alistair’s misgivings, though his idea of justice is very uncompromising and naive,’ she said plainly. ‘And there is sense to Morrigan's words, even if she only looks to seek advancement in the face of justice. But I… well, you do not know me. Truly, you have no reason to trust me, but-’

'But you know people,’ Syld repeated, a quiet mocking to her voice. 'And you think you know this Qunari, huh?’

'No. He is a strange man. But I can see your uncertainty about this Qunari. And it is very interesting to me.’

Syld shot her a hard look, almost felt her skin crawl for how bare she felt. Sharper than a blade indeed.

‘I spoke to him,’ she admitted, after chewing on her lip for a long time. 'Before… before I knew. For a whole, actually. I was almost convinced he shouldn't be in there, you know? Which is so fucking…’

You do not feel anything malicious or evil about him. It is the same as me.’

'He killed people that didn't deserve it. That should be enough to- to let him rot. Let the darkspawn have him. I've killed people for less. The worst part is, is that he actually seems sorry because he wants to atone or die or whatever, but why fucking do it, then?’

‘He is confused, and broken. And lost. Deeply lost. Do you see it? He is a stranger in a strange land.’

Syld could count on her fingers how many hours she had known her for, and yet found it was all the more difficult to count how many times Leliana had already surprised her. She had a very strange view on life and people. She looked at a giant from another land that had the blood of children on his hands and saw more than a murderer.

'So what are you going to do?’

Syld frowned. 'Why should I have to do anything ? I'm not in command here.’

'Are you sure about that?’ Leliana said dryly.

She stiffened at that. 'Alistair is- he's just grieving, and-’

'And you are not?’

'What?’

Leliana smiled, almost kind. 'You aren't as unreadable as you think you are. It is not a bad quality, not at all. It has allowed me to put a tremendous amount of faith in you.’

'See, that's your first mistake. That’s on you. Keep that in mind when this all eventually goes to shit.’

'Enough of that. Self-depreciation is unbecoming of a commander.’

‘I’m not a-’

Leliana put her hand up, an offering of peace.

It took Syld too long to notice she was just teasing now, and let out a puff of breath. ‘You’re an interesting lay sister, you know that. This place is going to miss you.’

Leliana looked solemn. ‘And I will miss it. It has been… peaceful.’

They drank it in together, as best they could with the ruckus behind them. House lights flickered and a breeze rolled through. Even Hobbs seemed to appreciate it for what it was, eyes keen, gentle puffs. Syld munched on the last of her bread.

‘You’ve eaten a tremendous amount of bread this evening.’

‘So? It’s delicious.’

‘Why don’t we go inside and get something a little healthier? Some vegetables, perhaps?’

Syld snorted, laughing, mouth full. ‘Piss off, Sister.’

‘Have you ever heard of a carrot?’

‘No, what’s that?’ she bit back, brattish, finding herself pleased when Leliana grinned at her.

The gentle moment ended as abruptly as it started when Hobbs suddenly sat up, ears swivelling, nose going mad. Something like a whine vibrated through him, edged with warning.

They both squinted into the darkness. Out of it came a guard, red from running, close to collapsing. He saw them first.

His legs shook. A feeling of dread rolled up Syld’s spine when he nearly collapsed in front of them, blood on his hands and his armour.

He didn’t need to say it, but he gasped it anyway.

The darkspawn are here . ‘Close. They’re close. Maker’s breath, they’re-’

They were on their feet in seconds.

Here , here? How long do these people have?’

‘Hours. Less than… here by morning. Hordes of them. Man just- just died in my-’ he trailed off, cursing, eyes wide in remembering.

‘Go and warn Ser Bryant immediately,’ Leliana said, stern, clapping him on the shoulder. ‘ Now.

He was gone.

‘Syld-’

Leliana stopped her as she tried to barge back into the tavern.

'We need to warn them-’

‘We cannot cause a panic.’

What ?’ Syld snapped, shaking her free. ‘We need to get these people out of here! We need to help-’

‘You have a duty, do you not?’

Syld stared at her in disbelief. ‘Yeah, a duty to fight darkspawn , which is what I’ll-’

‘Stop. Think. You and Alistair have a mission. Think of the bigger picture.’

‘“Think of the bigger picture”? You sound like Morrigan.’

‘This is not easy for me to say. I have spent time with these people. I do not wish to leave without fighting for them any more than you do.’

‘Bryant-’

‘Bryant would say the same. He is a good man, a smart man, he knows Ferelden depends on your ability to unite us.’

Syld ground her teeth together. ‘ Fuck .’

Leliana gave her a measured look. ‘Lothering has warning. There is nothing we can do, nothing what won’t waste your life in the process. Do you under-’

‘Yes I fucking - yes . Yes.'

‘We need you and Alistair alive. The Maker wills it.’

The Maker can kiss my- Syld sucked in a harsh breath and rolled some of the tension out of her shoulders.

Leliana squeezed her arm, apologetic, comforting, but her eyes were still hard. ‘Go for the highway, I will get the others. No doubt Alistair will need to be talked down from any rash decisions as well. I will meet you there?’

Syld gave a curt nod, whistled for Hobbs’ attention and then was running for the fields. She felt sick to her stomach.

It was only moments later that she realised it was because she could already smell them in the air. The stink of the horde.

I’m sorry, Lothering.

 


 

She had a purpose with which she marched to his cage. Raging eyes. When his solitary guard tried to stop her this time, her Mabari settled in for a pounce and she unholstered a dagger, and spun it about her fingers. Instead of the blade, she threatened him with the hilt.

'I'm not above knocking you out and leaving you naked in the field if you don’t get out of my way. Get lost,’ she snarled, ‘and I promise I won't tell anyone I nearly made you piss your pants.’

She watched him leave, stumbling into a run when Hobbs barked at him, her chest rising and falling. Her gazed whipped out into the field. And then to him.

He couldn’t decipher that look.

‘The darkspawn are coming.’

He willed for calm. Acceptance. He closed his eyes and clenched the bars, took a breath of resignment.

Instead, all he felt was fire.

‘Are you guilty?’

The memory always made him go still. His clothes and skin were still spattered with the children and women’s blood, an echo of the violence, and then the awful quiet that followed.

‘Are you asking if I feel guilt, or if I am responsible for the deed?’

'Both. Either.’

'You know the answer.’

‘I know that you want to die for it. I also know that you let them capture you.’

‘However I feel, whatever I’ve done, my life is forfeit now.’

‘You’re right. You killed a lot of people.’

He didn’t know why he was talking about this with her again, why he allowed her to dig and dig. It was almost like he wanted to frighten her away.

To let him die.

‘An entire farmhold.’ he said, unable to keep the edge out of his tone. He didn’t want her to understand, and he didn’t want her to want to. ‘Eight humans, in addition to the children.’

She sniffed, feigning that his words barely touched her, but she wasn’t very good at hiding how she truly felt. ‘You know, my friend told me that I should let you out for mercy’s sake alone. What do you think about that?’

He could not imagine her doing that, but he tried to. He had thought himself at peace with his fate. At least, with the prospect that he deserved it. But if she opened the cage now? Would he remain there? Would he have gone off in an attempt to find a fitting end on his own? Would he run towards the darkspawn?

‘It would not make me free.’ he said, after a long moment.

‘Sure it would. Free as a bird. Free to do whatever you bloody well want.’

‘It would not erase what I have done.’

‘What would it matter, you would have had your freedom.’

‘Honor is greater than freedom.’

Her face turned foul for the briefest moment, harsh lines where her mouth snarled and her brow bunched. ‘You have no honor.’ she all but spat.

A coldness clenched in his chest. ‘I know.’ he agreed.

She huffed, and started to pace back and forth before the cage. Her hound watched her closely.

‘You want to be punished, huh?’ she goaded. ‘Leliana thinks you’re lost or- or broken. And you think leaving yourself to the whims of the universe or something fucking stupid like that is gonna help you atone for it. You know what I think? I think you’re just a coward .’

She smirked, because he had flinched, gripped the bars tighter, and felt dead anger rise up in him at her insult.

‘That’s right, you’re a fucking coward, Sten of the Beresaad. But you know what else my friend said? She said that you’d be useful to us. That you should join us.’

He stared at her, unsure if there was a miscommunication. She had such pretty words for strangers, he noticed. Such a way of enticing another question, but he was not so easy to leap at his curiosity. He mulled it over for a long moment, every word that came out of her mouth, taking into his calculations her honest face.

‘You are offering a convicted murderer freedom.’

‘These are desperate times and some of my companions think you’re worth the risk. Plus I- screw you, I’m not offering you shit. There is the strong possibility of us being massacred by swarms of darkspawn and a giant fuck-off dragon, so I wouldn’t exactly call it freedom .’

‘It seems an unnecessary risk on your part to put your trust me.’

‘I don’t trust you.’ she said, blunt. ‘We need all the help we can get. And, well, these idiots keep looking at me to make all the decisions around here, so congratulations, you’re my first calculated risk. Maybe I'll regret this. Maybe you'll be the best decision I ever made, who knows. So what’s your answer? You want to rot in this cage or do you want to do something good ? You have about five seconds. Yes or no.’

‘Yes.’ On a whim, a rush. It fell out of him before it had felt like he had even considered the proposition. Until he realised he had been hanging onto her every word. Until he realised a desperation had started to rise in him.

‘Okay.’ She let out a great breath. ‘So… So what’s the deal with this cage?’

‘The Chantry woman has the key.’

‘Chantry woman, do you mean the revered mother? Hmm. Shit.’ She rubbed her eyes with the flat of her palms, and groaned at herself. ‘That’s a no-go.’

‘She did not seem so witless as half of you. Perhaps she will see reason.’

‘See, she thinks I’m a piece of shit since I threatened a templar and got us kicked out of the Chantry, so. No. She won’t.’

Already he was regretting this agreement. No words of confirmation had been spoken yet, perhaps it was not too late to be left to rot in the cage.

He sighed, deep, steeling himself. ‘Then what is your plan.’

She went digging into a small satchel tied at her hip. She produced slender, worn tools.

‘Well. Ready?’ she asked needlessly, as her lockpick was already digging away at the padlock. He half expected it to snap, how recklessly she did it. He soon realised it to be confidence, as only moments later something clicked and fell away. A talented thief.

A voice bellowed up the path, calling her name. She winced, even as she swung the cage wide open.

‘Maker’s Breath, what are you doing ?’

A tall proceeding of humans. Young and awkward. And it shocked him to see so many women amongst their ranks. A sister of the Chantry and another that gave him a static feeling and had eyes like a snake, looking about like she had just crawled from her burrow for a fear. The man amongst them trembled, wracked with what he assumed to be fear, and now turned to fury to see her freeing him.

‘Making an executive decision,’ she said, hushed, hinting he too should lower his voice. He was storming for the cage.

‘You’ve taken it upon yourself to free a convicted murderer. Who, I might add, is an unnervingly giant foreigner with hands big enough to crush my tiny skull, and you did this without properly consulting any of us-’

‘This isn’t the time,’ the witch cut through, almost cruel.

‘Yell at me all you want later, Alistair. Sten of the-’

‘Sten.’ he clarified, taking a first step out of the cage. He didn’t tremble. He didn’t. ‘Sten will suffice.’

‘Sten,’ she breathed. ‘Let’s go.’

They ran across the fields, making their escape. The elf and and her angry companion continued to glance back over their shoulders. When they weren’t on the ever-fading Lothering, they were on him. There was too much happening for him to feel the burn of movement after being cramped for so long. The fading of hunger and thirst.

He still kept up, and that was something.

Alistair looked at him with hatred and fear, but more importantly with bitter acceptance. His hand strayed to his weapon more than once.

But it was not drawn, not until they reached the highway, and a cluster of darkspawn fell upon them.

It was dark but for a lantern on the dwarf’s cart, a mage light the snake-woman hovered overhead them to ease their path.

They had little time to prepare for the horde as they turned their snivelling mouths their way, and a greatsword was thrust into his hand, a growl of you better know how to use this thing . Alistair. The first trust.

He almost felt whole, cleaving something in half.

Chapter Text

 

off-road pt 1

 


 

'Is everyone alright?’

She sat with her head between her knees and listened for the replies. They came in huffs and puffs and a familiar snark. They weren't a breathless moment off the highway, an old camping ground they'd stumbled across that was like a pinprick in the vastness of the forest.

'They're closer than we thought.’

'A scouting party, most likely.’

Alistair shook his head and wiped the sweat from his brow. ‘We shouldn't have left. They needed us.’

'Alistair, we had no choice-’

'Don't give me that, Leliana. I'm not- I know what my duty is. That doesn't mean I regret running from my other duties.’

'Is it really in your Warden code to die fruitlessly? Which is exactly what you would have done had you gone charging towards them.’ Morrigan reminded him, harsh, edging on cruel, as was her way with him.

Alistair huffed. ‘Thank you, Morrigan. And I'm sure you would have shed a tear for me. Probably from laughter because you're a-’

Syld rolled her eyes as they started on one another, and as she did, they fell on Sten.

He sat some distance away from all of them, arms on his knees. Chest rising and falling and trying not to show them how deep the exhaustion went. Watching with that quiet intent of his, that probably saw more than was on display. He knew what they were.

She looked at him for the first time since the bloody scrap, where their eyes had met briefly. She had been shocked to see him, almost like she had just forgotten the terrible decision she had made. Alarmed by the weapon in his hand. Mollified by the sight of him slicing off the head of a darkspawn instead of one of her own people.

'Are you injured?’ she asked him, which made the bickering stop. The new blood spatter on him was too dark to be his. Or maybe it wasn't. It wasn't like she'd seen fresh Qunari blood before. Could be blue for all she knew.

He shook his head in reply.

‘He’s just fine, Syl. He's a free man.’ Alistair bit out.

'Don't start.’

'No, I'm curious, how many people did he kill again?’

She held a hand up to cut him off in the middle of his tirade. ‘He'll be of use to us and you know it. Get off my back.’

He threw his arms up.

‘That’s not the point!’

‘Then what is the point?’

‘Do you think this is how we’re going to get an army? Treaties? You couldn't even wait for us before you-’

‘You’re the one that put a fucking sword on his hand!’

'Like that would have mattered! Big hands, tiny skull, remember?’

'Tiny brain .’

He made a face at her. ‘And how does your brain work? Is threatening people your way of saying hello? You're acting like a-’

Oh, oh, okay, so you’ve decided you’re ready to step up?’ He flinched at the proposal, and she was smug. ‘Yeah that’s what I thought. I deal with things my way. If we did it your way we’d still be arguing about ethics and drowning in our own tears, neither of which we have any time for.’

He glared at her, hurt by this.

‘If you feel that strongly about it, go put him back in there. I won’t stop you. We’ll wait right here.’

'You're like a child.’ he said bitterly.

She nearly snarled. 'And what are you , exactly, Chantry Boy? You've got everything figured out? It's not my fucking fault you-’

‘Both of you.’ Leliana said sternly. 'Stop. End this now. What's done is done and no matter how the decision was made, you need to work together.’

Syld glared at her. 'I'm not the one dwelling on it.’

'What you are doing is bickering in the middle of a forest. I don't see how that is any better.’ Morrigan cut in, an arch to her brow and a stare that turned both their fire's cold. She promptly left them, tired of the scene.

When she was out of earshot, Alistair rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. ‘It just doesn’t… feel right.’ he said, a little helpless.

‘No,’ Leliana soothed. 'And I don't imagine it should. It’s not the heroic choice. Not the clean one.’

Alistair said nothing. He shot a glance Sten’s way.

‘We shouldn’t have left the people of Lothering behind,’ he said again, quietly, the fight exhaling out of him. He rubbed at his eyes, exhausted.

She felt an awful pang in her chest. ‘I know.’ Syld said, still not looking at him, and just as quiet. Leliana had nothing for that this time but her own barely concealed guilt.

And then he strode away angrily from the argument, to the very edge of the clearing. Hobbs followed after him, curious, worried.

Syld stared bitterly at his retreating backside, still shaking from the adrenaline of the long run and the short, vicious battle.

She leaned back into a tree on the edge of the forest with a hard thud and slowly slid down it.

It was just him and her and the silence between, deafening between them, an edge as sharp as her dagger, which she realised was still wet with intestines and gripped hard in her fist.

He had watched all of it. As they fought like fools. As they spoke about him, in front of him. Like she hadn't given him the decision. Like she hadn't promised some kind of redemption.

Yeah, he knew exactly what they were. Not that either her or Alistair were hard to read at the worst of their animosity. They were squabbling children. She could see it in Sten's eyes, reflected back.

There was no commander here.

 


 

He thought of how troublesome it would be to have to find his feet if she stood there hanging over him for much longer, when she suddenly crouched before him and held out her hands.

He did not know this one, other than that she had been in Lothering when he'd been made her priest's prisoner. So his first reaction was to grab her wrist and break it before whatever it was that she shoved at him— dagger, poison, both— managed to leave its mark.

She was holding out bread.

He stared at the food, a long second. He met her eyes.

She hefted the small loaf in her hand, nudging it his way. It smelled good. His stomach clenched.

She shuffled closer instead of farther.

'Come now.’ Soft voice, musical. ‘Eat. You're no use half starved. Don't think I didn't see how hard it was to keep swinging that sword like that.’

He took the food, and tried not to let her see how truly ravenous he was. When she offered him some water he drank desperately, and she said nothing as water dribbled over his chin. It was like life flooding his veins.

'There, better? Eat if you are hungry, but go slow.’

Oddly mothering. Little fear for how close she was, too.

'My name is Leliana by the way. Sten, yes?’

He nodded.

'So, you truly were not injured in the fight?’

'No.’

‘If you fight like that half dead then you will have your strength back in no time.’ She gave him an odd smile. There was no mirth in it. Something clever and penetrating in her eyes. ‘Syl set you free on behalf of us all. But I wonder why you followed, hm? Did she threaten you? Did she give you something?’

In a way, he supposed. Threatened with the truth. With possibilities.

'A choice.’ he decided.

'Ah, choices tend to pile up, don't they? They're funny like that. Whatever your choice, make sure hers was worth it.’

The next few days moved like limbo, a standstill, as they seemed to hold their breath instead of catch it. They travelled through the day on the highway, and at night they moved off-road to find what little space the forest could make for them. The exhaustion in his bones faded as he slept and ate and eased life back into cramped muscles.

The elf spoke little to anybody except Leliana, who cared little for the stubborn way she avoided her companions, and the dwarf merchant who had taken it upon himself to lead him and his son through the path they cleared. During the day she flanked the party as they moved, faster and with more purpose than he might have given them credit for. He felt her eyes on him at all times and it was clear that he was her charge. The duty that came with her decision. During the night she sat at the fire, if they had the means to one, and constructed crude waterskins out of the hares they caught for dinner. The witch caught the fattest ones, always, slinking back out of the forest with blood on her hands and sometimes on her mouth. The little warden delved into the forests herself most nights to hunt. Longer and longer every night.

And she would drop to her sleeping mat and dream so restlessly. Still as stone and curled in, but there were deep shivers and whimpers and always a dreadful startle at the end. Bad dreams made her dark circles worse and the nightly hunts longer still.

'The river is close. I'll find it soon. Once we do we should follow it as opposed to the highway.’ she said to the Sister, as she fixed a clasp on the calf of her leather boot. Plotting and planning without her fellow warden, who also spoke little and kept to himself.

'We've had little trouble with the highway thus far.’

‘I feel like our luck might change the closer we get to Redcliffe. Water is safe. Water means food.’

She had left again for the trees, and this time her return came swiftly. The exuberance of her hound every time it laid fresh eyes on her was exhausting to watch, and for the most part she met its enthusiasm head on, accepted its heavy weight as it jumped to greet her. On its hind legs, it was almost as tall as she.

She went straight to the Sister, slightly out of breath but otherwise unharmed. They shared a few more words. And then she came to him with her hound in tow.

‘Come with me. Leave your sword.’

She turned without waiting for him. He found his feet and stuck the blade deep into the ground, and followed her first to collect her pack. She slung a bow and quiver over her back. She gave a whistle for her hound and they made for the trees again just as the sun had set.

She took lead, telling him to turn when necessary, but otherwise stayed quiet. Occasionally hushing her Mabari as it picked up every stray stick and begged her to toss it. It was dark, and bramble and the uneven forest floor made the path slow to navigate, but he trusted her eyes to find the things his could not.

Eventually they came to a place where the trees grew thicker, taller but more sparse, and the sound of running water they had been following flowed in time to the sight of a gully that then broke out into a wide river. The current was too strong to perfectly capture the stars and the moon, but it was beautiful regardless. It was a sharp drop into the water, where it had smoothed down the lip to a slippery clay edge.

In silence they knelt beside the gully and filled the waterskins she pulled from her bag. She had to hold onto the thick root of a plant that broke out the side as she leaned in. She took a long drink from a full skin, emptying it in a single gulp and then gasping as she went to refill it.

She whistled for her hound, and she sat with it for a time, helping it drink from the river. She poured water over its face and wiped off some of the remaining dried, crusted darkspawn gore, speaking softly as she did, smiling at its odd whuff and letting it lick a few cowlicks into her fringe.

Before he could question why she had brought him along to do a task befitting any of the others, which she might have preferred, she capped the last of them and gave him his answer.

'You stink.’ she said, not cruelly. 'Have a bath before we go back.’

It was true, for he did not have the pleasure of walking into the woods to relieve himself when the need arose in the cage. He had become desensitized to it and had no idea how wretched he smelled to her, and so instead of declining (as it was more an order than a request), he nodded. She moved off to give him some privacy.

He dropped off the short ledge and waded to where the water grew darker and deeper, filthy trousers and all.

She sat close by, leaning back on a gargantuan tree. She would have seen him easily with a sidelong glance, but she gave him some modicum of privacy and stared out into the river, the opposite side was some distance, a twenty minute swim at least, vague in the dark. A short, grassy bank that disappeared into a dense treeline. The sky was bright and open, and he bathed in the moonlight.

He stood to where it barely came to his chest, glad to finally be rid of the blood and dirt and crackling old paint.

He knelt to submerge himself. It was so cold, from the current and the bitter night, and it felt like it pierced his skin. Breaking the surface again and touching his braids, he noted that they were in desperate need of care, some even needed to be redone completely by the feel of it. It had been a long time since he had seen a reflective surface and he could not confirm.

All of a sudden the hound, in need of its own bath, joined him. It made a big leap into the water, making quite a ruckus with its entry.

It made her glance over at once.

She stared, unblinking, but he saw her relax once her hound surfaced and barked happily. Their eyes met over the wide arcing splashes Hobbs made, sizing one another up. She did not settle until he did, or until she believed she had defined his motives. Each tiny thing was taken into a cold calculation. She did not trust him. It was justified- he was certain he could kill them all in their sleep before one even noticed.

Perhaps it was the edges of his exhaustion, this cold water filling his head up. The feeling of clean skin. A strange sentimentality overcame him as he watched her.

He’d spent a lot of time considering the cage and his death to be one and the same. His place and purpose within the Qun was nullified at the blood of innocence on his hands, with Asala lost to him, while he had stewed on that lattice floor in his own filth. He thought, as he scrubbed that same filth off with his bare hands, that the atonement he’d been waiting for was a weak dishonorable death.

Until she’d opened that mouth of hers.

You know what I think? I think you're a coward.

She finally looked away, the green crescent glow of her eyes curving around her pupil as she played with the slack string of her bow.

'If he's annoying you just tell him to back off.’

Hobbs paddled about like water was a natural think to him, mouth wide in a happy pant. A gentle, playful nature for a warhound. Loyal to her and always looking her way. She always looked back with a smile and a few words of praise.

'He is trained well.’

‘He’s smart. I'd never even seen a Mabari before. They had hundreds at Ostagar.’

Sten gave it's head a scratch as it swam passed him. 'He is not yours?’

'Well I guess he is now. I don't even know how he got out. He was in the pens, sick with the taint. He must have remembered me.’

'He is not well?’

‘I think he's fine now. We made him a cure. Didn't we, boy?’ she cooed.

He whuffed back happily.

'Your hound holds you in high regard.’

'They're loyal animals. Don't know what I would do without him. I suppose he follows us because he trusts me. Lucky he doesn't have the mind to notice how damn foolish we are.’ She smirked, mirthless. ‘What about you? You're not a loyal dog. Are you regretting your choice?’ she said. ‘For what little good me and Alistair accomplish together. He really is a pratt.’

‘It was either follow you or die.’

She snorted. 'Oh please. They're one and the same, probably. Let's not fucking forget that you could have gotten out of that cage any time you wanted. Instead you just sat around waiting for-’ she cut herself off with a clear of her throat. ‘Well, that's all been said. You, ah, you fought well the other night. For somebody who had been in a cage for… how long was it again?’

‘Twenty days.’ he said, gently pushing the hound away when it tried to climb on him.

'That's a long time to go without food and water.’

‘Compared to your kind, maybe.’

‘I’m sure there are many differences between you and me. Besides the ears.’ He was suddenly aware of the pointed tips of his ears. Nowhere near as prolific as that of her own kind, and hers sloped and stuck out- with a tip missing on the left. He’d never given them much thought before. He felt bare compared to others of his kind, with the horns protruding from their skulls.

‘Are there many Qunari warriors?’

‘Yes.’

‘Where are you from?’

‘It matters not.’

‘Oh? I’m just trying to learn more about you. About your people. I'm curious.’

‘It is of little value to you.’

She frowned. ‘Why do you say that?’

‘You have many tasks ahead of you. Prying for the details of my people for the sake of your curiosity is not one of them.’

He watched her little fists clench in her lap. ‘What are you doing in Ferelden?’

‘Parshaara.’

‘What does that mean, anyway?’

‘Enough. It means, I wish you to stop asking questions.’

‘I’m just trying to understand why you're- you know what, you’re fucking right. It doesn’t matter. But I’m your commander . Don't think that it hasn't occurred to me that you're some sort of spy. If you are then you're a shit one.’

‘Are you?’

She shot him an annoyed look. ‘Am I what ?’

He stopped wiping down a forearm, stilled, and met her gaze dead on. ‘In command.’

She looked shocked, a multitude of emotions stuttering across her face. She realised what she had claimed. The one thing she had been vehemently denying until that very moment.

He thought of the others. Why these people who knew her just sparingly and still followed her into this doomed quest, he had no idea. What personal commitments they had was beyond him, what it was they were desperate to atone for. What pretty words she might have spoken, what ultimatum. They gathered close, less like leeches and more like starved roots looking for water and life, fruitlessly, considering the path they were on.

Maybe they were swept up, like he was. Holding onto her coattails for dear life.

‘As far as you’re concerned,’ she said, finally, and the words had some venom, some warning to it that he decided not to push. She stopped asking questions. It was all his tired mind could hope for.

Soon the Mabari dragged itself up onto the grass, slipping on the moss as it did, and shook itself off. Sten decided to follow suit, wrenching out what water he could out of his braids and the ends of his pants.

They made their way back to the camp, picking back through the uneven path, water sloshing in the skins and twigs breaking beneath their feet, when the hound quietened. Went still, stopped breathing with a gentle whine. And then she did, too. Every muscle went rigid and she dropped low and silently unslung the bow from her back and notched an arrow.

There was only the slightest creak of the string, a puff of breath, and she loosed. There was a shrill and a deep thud some yards away, and finally he saw the movement.

A baby deer. Lost. Underfed. Too deep in this thick forest and breathing it's last.

He watched her as she bent low to inspect the creature, her arrow deep in its lungs. It barely struggled now, barely flinched as she put her hand gently to it's ribs and stroked through its fur, murmuring softly.

'Good find, boy,’ she said quietly to her Mabari as it snorted at the deer. 'Very good boy.’

She took a dagger from her side and ended it quickly.

He had not expected a hunter. She was no Dalish, barefaced and city swagger. But a clean, methodical kill. He recognised that style of her. That close-quarters tumble about her.

Any doubt he had about what she could do with that blade of hers turned into a musing for exactly how far her stomach for violence went. Because she seemed almost happy carving that red path. She breathed for weakness. Vanishing. Unfolding behind her enemy. It reminded him of silk. There was a short, brute force in the way she kept her daggers steady, between the ribcage and finding that beating heart. Skilled in harming, skilled in blood. He could still see her there between the heavy fall of his greatsword. Splattered and furious as the blood grew on her.

They were all ruthless in their own way, however uncoordinated.

But a hunter. A connection to the land.

He slung the deer over his shoulder without prompting and they went on their way.

A fire greeted them back at camp. The witch kept to herself on the outskirts, nurturing her own. The chantry woman, trying to talk the reluctant Templar through the skinning and gutting of a hare. The look on his face when Sten dropped a deer before them.

He retrieved his sword back from the earth, and Syld left him by the fire and did not speak to him again. It was the Sister who checked on him as he dried slowly by the flames, warmth seeping into his skin and his damp trousers. They were not prepared to share the journey with him and a few blankets were all that was offered in place of a sleeping matt. The ground was soft enough.

And he was too pathetically pleased at the idea of being able to sleep flat on the ground every night as opposed to squashed up in a cage to mind.

The elf stepped in to help Leliana skin and prepare the meat of their kill, salting the rest for the journey ahead. After dinner she curled herself up on a matt and turned away from the fire and the prospect of further conversation. The Mabari gave a final shake, droplets hissing as they met the fire, and then went to nestle against the back of its mistress. The smell of wet dog began to fade.

He did not miss the flicker of the chantry woman’s gaze, taking first watch. She was all soft lines in the night, her hair vibrant and bright from the light of the fire. The other Warden sat up for a long time intermittently glaring at him. Eventually he turned in after about the fifth yawn.

It took Sten a long time to find sleep, despite himself. He stared up at the stars as he had done many nights before, all too aware of the presence around him that might have rather seen him dead in that moment. There were no bars overhead this time. He had grown used to the endless noise of his guards more than he had known, and now it left a void of empty sound, the bugs and birds and the snap and crackle of burning wood. He had to home in on even breathing and the odd snore and eventually the stars disappeared above his eyelids.


 

It felt like clawing his way through waves, breaking the surface of sleep, waking up to that bloodcurdling scream. He sat up, already grabbed for the hilt of his sword, fast enough to see the elf jolt awake and nearly sock her fellow Warden across the face. She would have, but he seemed prepared for it. He dodged and took her wrist and hushed her.

The other two hovered close by.

‘Give her some space. Hey, now. You’re okay, love.’ he said gently. She shook, and tears streaked her face.

He wondered how such a tiny thing could keep a noise like that inside her, and what had put it there. The others melted at the sight, and it dawned on him, and the rest of them he suspected, how young she really was. Too young for this.

‘I wasn’t yelling, was I?’ she asked meekly. She tried to reach for Hobb’s ear and found herself slippery and weak. It pushed into her hand with its snout and it was the first sign of her calming.

Alistair gave back her arm, and backed up on his knees to give her space, sensing his presence wasn’t helping any.

‘A tad, but don’t worry.’

The witch looked guarded, uncomfortable. Her mouth opened and closed more than once as she mulled over any kind of comfort that could beat the way Hobbs was kissing her face, and the way Sister was cooing in a way that obviously came naturally to her.

She finally cleared her throat. ‘’Tis only a bad dream. I could make up a sleeping drought for you, if you wish.’

The elf smiled thankfully. ‘Thank you, but I think I’m okay now. I’m sorry to wake you. Um. Please go back to sleep.’

‘I am no stranger to nightmares, believe me,’ Morrigan muttered. She nodded and left them for her own corner of the clearing, fidgeting back under her blankets and tossing away from the firelight.

The Sister was still up and keeping watch, but she did not intrude further on the quiet moment the elf needed to gather herself. She offered a smile occasionally, but mostly kept her eyes on the treeline.

As if remembering his existence at that moment, her eyes flew over to him. A distance away on the other side of the fire, watching. She looked vulnerable, but too tired to do anything about it. She just blinked at him, dared him to say something.

‘Archdemon dream?’ Alistair enquired, settling in beside her.

‘Just a normal one.’ she said, ignoring Sten again. ‘What’s an archdemon dream?’

‘I guess Duncan didn’t tell you? It’s one of the many wonderful side effects of being a Warden. Dreaming of the horde. Sometimes they feel so close I can almost smell them.’

She seemed to shiver at that. ‘I’m sorry I tried to hit you.’

‘You wouldn’t be the first.’ he yawned. He rubbed his face, trying to chase sleep away further. ‘Are you okay?’

The elf shrugged. ‘It was just a nightmare.’

‘Want to talk about it?’

She shook her head. She sat with her chin tucked over her knees, trying to make herself small.

Sten, nowhere near sleep again and unable to stop from listening in on this quiet conversation, was surprised at how careful and gentle they were being with one another when they’d been nothing but the contrary for days. Vicious and childish and throwing command around like it was hot rocks.

‘A lot has happened,’ Alistair conceded. ‘How can anybody sleep peacefully?’

She hummed in agreement. ‘I can’t stop thinking about my dad and my cousins. And-’ there was an angry hitch to her voice. ‘I hated leaving Lothering. Hated it.’

‘Me too. It’s okay.’

She sniffed, and wiped the tears off her cheeks. Some of them might have been fresh. ‘Look, I know… this wasn't… I don't make this easy. This might not be what you wanted, either. But I know what being a Warden means. We’re supposed to be fighting for people.’

‘If things were different…’ he trailed off, something strangled in his voice. The silence between them was heavy. ‘If things had happened differently-’

‘It’s okay.’ she hushed him. ‘I know. I’m sorry.’

‘Me too.’ he said.

A companionable silence lasted between them for only a moment, before Alistair cut through it with a put upon sulk, 'I'm not a Chantry Boy , by the way.’

She snorted. 'Oh? But you used to be a boy, and you used to live in a Chantry.’

Used to being the operative-’

'Once a Chantry Boy, always a Chantry Boy.’

'Stop-’

'You can take the boy out of the Chantry, but you can't take the Chantry out of-’

Alistair laughed. ‘ Stop!

Sten turned away and willed himself to find sleep again. This was not for him.

These childish basra confused him, but he had always known what life was like outside of the Qun, aimless, troubling, too profound.

It didn’t make sense why he fell asleep again resigned to the fact that he was following in the footsteps of children that did not even know themselves, but that he would go, wherever their aimless path led.