The bustle of Denerim’s slums filtered into the room only slightly muffled by its passage through thin alienage walls. In the next room, the sound of a cooking meal joined it along with the scent of melting butter and fresh fish. The straw mattress sagged just a touch under Safir’s weight as she sat cross-legged in its center and stared at the uneven brick wall just a few feet ahead. Breathing deeply, she closed her eyes and willed her awareness onto the corrupted blood that coursed through her veins. The taint seemed strongest at her hands and feet, flowing inward in steady waves. But soon it collected itself in her core, pulsing along with the beats of her heart and writhing in unrest as a cooling sensation crawled up her spine and took root inside her head. Then the song’s melody rose up from the rhythmic drumming of her body. At first it was only a whisper, a faint call from beyond shimmering in the darkness with an ethereal lament that asked for nothing save her attention.
As it asked, so did it receive.
Safir attuned herself more closely to the song and at once it grew louder in her mind, as clear as if it were sung by a choir of ghosts in the very same room. Soon, its fervor grew, no longer a whisper but an exuberant chant, striking out against her drumming heart with a lovely warmth as if to reward her for listening. The song calmed soon after and settled into a relaxed gait, wandering peacefully through the enthralling notes that made up its melody. Comprised of sounds unlike the timbre of any instrument, it wrapped around her slowly, threatening in each moment to ensnare her mind and call her forth, forth into the darkness where it lay waiting to be released.
But all was not lovely. The song’s beauty was marred every few moments by the ringing of a sour note or the playing of a chord out of time. These blemishes on its perfection betrayed its true nature: corrupted, foul, and deceitful. Searching endlessly for a weakness of will or a lapse of judgment to lead her to doom. And yet, even marked as it was by its sinister deviations, the song commanded loyalty, a will to be received and to be heeded. It inspired not suspicion or anger, but pity. Desperate, longing pity. Safir felt that if only she could reach out, find the place it came from, she could correct those misplaced notes and set the music to blissful, wonderful rest. It would take but a moment for all to be well.
She opened her eyes, fixing them once more on the bricks that lay before her and forcing the awareness of her blood back into obscurity. The call of the Old Gods fought her even as she attempted to ignore it, the strained notes lurching into a fast and irregular tempo. Against this argument she persisted, wearing away at its hold over her mind with each deep breath she took until finally, it slipped reluctantly back into silence.
The song had grown louder already since the previous week, and its resistance stronger. Safir guessed that the moment was fast approaching that it would refuse to be abated. That was not a moment which she would suffer to arrive.
She stretched herself out slightly, her hands meeting the wooden bedframe that held the top bunk in place above her head. She rose from her meditative position on the mattress and cast her eyes to the corner of the room, where a burlap sack sat closed on the lid of a ramshackle trunk. Lifting the sack by its knotted opening, she brought it with her to the wobbly table that stood against the wall under the glow of a burning rushlight. Undoing the knot proved a difficult task after it had spent so much time buried in the forest soil. Clumps of impacted dirt still clung to the folded burlap and held it fast in place. Tiring of the work, Safir produced Fang from a pile of her belongings on the floor and cut the contents free by removing the knot from the sack entirely. Then, carefully, she laid them all out on the table before tossing the sack behind her. Spread out before her across the uneven wooden surface were a shabby leatherbound notebook, an ancient tube of rolled up parchment, and a small glass vial of black blood that had somehow remained wet in spite of its apparent age. The sack contained also a few bits and bobs of lesser import. Things like dried herbs and apothecary’s tools, both of which were common enough to find in the right stores. This miscellany she set aside while she focused her attention on those items that were of particular interest.
The subject of her immediate investigation was the vial of blood. She palmed it easily and held it close for further inspection. The glass was without label, and the blood it contained without much character. It swished around inside the vial, almost entirely black but for the wine red of its meniscus. She closed her eyes and held it up to her forehead, not beckoning the song to make itself known but waiting to see if it would call out to her of its own accord. A few silent moments later, she set it back down on the table, once again unable to sense any of the taint in the blood. Perhaps whatever creature’s veins had once housed it had not been darkspawn. In any case, that is what she theorized. No one in the Wardens had ever explicitly told her that darkspawn blood could be sensed even when outside of a darkspawn’s body.
Safir sighed and bit her lip as she resigned herself to ignorance. Whatever her suspicions, the vial remained a mystery about which no conclusions could be drawn for certain. Instead, she opened up the leather journal whose yellow pages were filled with notes scratched in by the tip of a hastened author’s quill. The Witch of the Wilds had left her with many hints and clues, but precious few answers:
I have found a great many things of interest in my travels, the notebook began, Morrigan’s script dancing along the pages as elegantly as her spoken word. Here I have catalogued those which should interest you in particular.
Content with that opening, Morrigan’s writing sped casually along through a summary of her discoveries, which ranged from a strange plant’s medicinal effects to startling theories and speculation about Thedosian history. It was every word of it beyond Safir’s capacity and willingness for understanding. She pinched her nose as she skimmed through the witch’s account of an elven ruin in the Western Approach and shut the journal with a huff. True to her character, the notes she’d left behind were frustratingly cryptic and devoid of any clear direction.
Safir next considered the white roll of parchment. Undoing the string that held it in shape, she unfurled it and watched as a slip of yellow paper fell out from within the stacked sheets. She turned it right side up to read the words Morrigan had scribbled onto it.
Found this somewhere near the Anderfels—early Warden activity. Should prove useful to you.
The witch was terse and to the point, but as usual she was not at all instructive. Not a single word of the notes written on the ancient leaves was in a language Safir could read. Each page was filled with the meandering lines that characterized elven writing, leading her to doubt very much that it had anything at all to do with the Grey Wardens.
Safir let her head fall into her waiting hands, sighing out a lungful of air as her eyes cycled restlessly through three separate dead ends and recognized the spectacular difficulty of the task that lay before her. Morrigan was nothing if not accommodating.
“Safir!” her father’s voice rang out. “Safir, your fish is getting cold!”
“What?” she yelled back, neglecting to think before speaking. Cyrion’s footsteps creaked into the space behind her as he approached the table, setting down the wooden plate of food just to the left of Safir’s assorted clues.
“Maker’s breath, what is all this?”
“A gift from Morrigan,” Safir answered, pulling the bread and pan-fried fish closer to herself. “I know what she’s trying to point me to, but I’m damned if I can make sense of any of this.”
“Morrigan? Is that your witch friend from the Blight?” He scoffed derisively upon her confirmation. “The same woman who abandoned my Little Owl in a darkspawn ruin. What use could you have for any gift of hers?”
Safir absentmindedly tore a thin piece of the filet off with her bare fingers and tossed it into her mouth, her eyes sweeping back and forth over the table as she chewed.
“It’s a cure. At least, I’m fairly sure it’s a cure.”
“A cure for what?”
“For the taint,” she added, albeit that explanation was not likely a useful one.
“I don’t understand,” Cyrion muttered under his breath, pulling up a chair from against the wall and sitting down to face her. “I assume you’re talking about the darkspawn taint. Why would you need a cure for that?”
“How do you think Wardens gain their abilities, Pa? We don’t just ask the Maker to please let us kill archdemons, you know.” Safir moved the blood vial closer to where her father sat to let him inspect it for himself. “We accept the Blight into ourselves in order to enhance our strength and endurance. It also gives us the ability to sense the darkspawn and kill their archdemons.”
“The Blight? But that’s… that’s lethal!” Cyrion pushed the vial away from himself as if merely touching it would infect him with the taint. “No one who’s exposed to it survives for more than a few hours!”
“Not under normal circumstances,” Safir specified. She figured there was little use in guarding the Wardens’ secrets at this point, especially given that actually finding the cure seemed quite hopeless. “Wardens are anything but normal. We take a specially modified form of darkspawn blood, add some creepy ancient magic, and it’s bottom’s up. If we live, we get to be Grey Wardens. If we don’t, well… we don’t.”
Wide eyes betrayed his dismayed shock before she’d even finished explaining the Joining. He brought a hand to his open mouth and stared straight at the vial on the table, no doubt imagining the filth and corruption that had taken root in his only daughter’s body.
“It’s fucked, I know,” Safir agreed.
“Oh my Little Owl, if I’d known that day…” he faltered, recomposing himself after a spell. “No. You were lost to me either way. I suppose this is better than execution, but it is still monstrous.”
“But necessary. It’s what lets us sense darkspawn, and it’s why only a Warden can stop a Blight.” Noticing her father’s visible confusion, Safir elaborated with a casual wave of her hand. “Not just anyone can kill an archdemon, or its soul will just zoom into the nearest darkspawn and be reborn. But because we’re tainted, too, if one of us kills it, it’ll try to zoom into us instead. Problem is, two souls can’t fit into one body, so both of them are destroyed and the Warden who kills the archdemon dies with it. That’s how Al… that’s how he died.”
“So, the cure…” he started, nervously tapping his fingers on the table, “it would get rid of your ability to sense the darkspawn. Is that what you want?”
“Wardens aren’t immune to the taint, Pa. It still kills us, it just takes a lot longer.”
Cyrion leaned forward at once, grabbing Safir’s arm with far too tight a grip for comfort. “Maker, Safir, how long have you got left?”
“I don’t know, Pa, I don’t know. But that’s why this cure is so important.” Safir pounded a closed fist onto the table, shaking her assorted clues from their positions and averting her eyes from Cyrion’s worried gaze. “Being a Warden only matters during a Blight. Now it’s over and I’m going to fix it. I’m going to fix me.”
“And all of this junk is going to lead you there?”
“It’s not junk, Pa, I just can’t understand it.” Safir shuffled the scattered pages around just to confirm that none of them were written in the common tongue. “I’ll need help.”
“Well, I’m sorry to say I won’t be of much use to you, Little Owl,” her father said with a resigned half grin.
“No offense, but I wasn’t asking for your help… I need Morrigan.”
“The woman, I repeat, who left you all alone when you needed her?” he protested. “I’m not sure that’s a wise choice, darling.”
“She’s the only one who could make sense of this, Pa.” Safir’s thoughts carried her back to the Dragonbone Wastes and to the eluvian that was buried there. Morrigan had left, yes, but with softness in her eyes. “And I think she would be glad to help. I hope so, anyway.”
“Then I suppose you’ll have to contact her,” Cyrion suggested, crossing his arms.
“Easier said than done. I have no idea where she is or how to find her.”
“Perhaps that is for the better?”
“But I know someone who might be able to track her down. The same person who helped me find her last time.”
Safir pushed her seat away from the table and stood, grabbing the bread from her plate and ripping a bite out of it as she rummaged through the house for blank parchment and a quill to write with.
“I need to write a letter,” she mumbled, mouth still full. “To Kinloch Hold. Ask them to let my friend out again so he can help.”
“I’ll leave you to it, then, Little Owl. Don’t let your dinner go colder than it already has,” Cyrion said, returning to the living room with a sigh and a shake of his head.
Safir was too focused on her own task to pay much mind to her father’s obvious disappointment with the decision. She sat down at once, clearing the sack’s contents away from the space in front of her chair to flatten a loose page and draft her message. She wrote it hastily, merely asking that Greagoir or the Knight-Commander in charge release Finn so that he may assist her again. Surely her position as Ferelden’s Hero of the Blight still gave her enough clout to make a request like that. As soon as she’d finished writing, she exited the house and made for the nearest courier station to deliver the letter. And then, upon returning home, began the uncomfortable task of waiting for a response.
Staring at her feet after entering her room, she couldn’t help but notice what a sorry state her boots were in. Each tear in the thin and worn leather beckoned to her and demanded that they be replaced, just as they’d done each time she put them on since she’d come home to Denerim. Until recently, that demand could be ignored without care or consequence, but leaving home again for the open road made that much more difficult. Safir crossed the room and kicked open the trunk that sat against the opposite wall. Inside it was all of her old equipment, from the padded jacket and leather vest to the corroded steel vambraces and greaves that had been with her since Orzammar. It also contained her old sword belt, whose loops were so worn through that they’d likely split apart under the weight of a butter knife.
She pulled out the jacket and vest, wondering if they could still be of any use to her. After laying them out on the bed and counting the holes and tears in them, however, that idea was confidently put to rest. Even if the sleeves weren’t on the verge of falling off and the leather not so pliable, their combined odor was enough to deter her from putting them on. Not an impressive state of affairs for a set of armor to be in.
“Note to self,” Safir sighed, “don’t go into exile in damp forests for years on end.”
“What was that?” chimed Cyrion, his head poking into the doorframe. Safir shook her head slightly and tossed the gambeson in his direction. Looking at it expectantly after it landed at his feet, he simply asked, “Your old gear?”
“That thing was bright blue when I first got it,” she explained, studying the dark gray color that had resulted from years of use and exposure. “And it was actually worth putting on. I’ll need better stuff for when I leave.”
“When you leave? I thought we agreed this was hopeless.”
“Nice try, Pa.” Safir stepped past him and walked into his bedroom, looking around at the furniture inside and wondering what it might contain. “I don’t suppose you’d have enough coin for a new set?”
“Safir, I live in an alienage,” he reminded her, spreading his arms to gesture to the room. “My coffers aren’t exactly overflowing. Couldn’t you just borrow gear from Vigil’s Keep?”
Crossing her arms and working out a kink in her neck, Safir avoided the question entirely. “There’s got to be something in here worth a few sovereigns,” she muttered as she began rummaging through her father’s dresser.
“You don’t honestly expect to find anything of value in there, do you, Little Owl? You’ll have a hard time finding a buyer for my socks.”
“Hey, it worked during the Blight. Maybe I could root around in a barrel outside while no one’s looking. Found a good belt in Lothering that way.”
Opening and closing each of the drawers to no avail, she sighed in frustration and scratched her head.
“What, Pa?” she groaned, her tone a touch more combative than she’d intended it to be.
“Vigil’s Keep. Why won’t you go to them? It’s a short enough way from here.”
“They’ll try to make me be a Warden again. At the very least. I can’t do that, and I can’t risk them finding out I’m trying to cure the taint.”
“What do you think they would do if they found out?” he pressed her, sounding unimpressed with her excuses. “They can’t force you to work for them, can they? I’ve never known the Wardens to be slave drivers.”
“You’ve never known the Wardens at all, Pa. Honestly, I don’t know how they would react, but I’m not interested in finding out.” Safir let out a sigh as she exited her father’s bedroom and faced the front door. “And… there are people there I’d rather not see.”
“So how do you plan to get new equipment, if you’re not still intent on auctioning off my belongings?”
“I can think of a few ways,” she let on, wondering if Slim Couldry could still be found in the markets.
“Oh, Maker… you’re not planning what I think you’re planning, are you?” Though she wasn’t looking at him, Safir was certain her father had crossed his arms and was shaking his head at the floor.
“What can I say, Pa?” she asked, heading for the door. “I am my mother’s daughter, after all.”
“That you are, Little Owl,” Cyrion admitted with a reluctant laugh. “But please, be more careful than she was, will you?”
“No promises,” Safir joked as she stepped out into the stenchy breeze of the alienage and made for its exit.
She set out in search of coin on the first of many trips into the city’s more opulent districts, pilfering whatever she could and scrounging up enough money for a new piece of equipment every few days. Just over a month later, she walked out of a blacksmith’s shop with a pair of silverite bracers paid for by some bann or other’s hapless daughter who paid far too much attention to her shoes and far too little to her purse. Arriving home, she tossed them onto a pile of other gear and found Cyrion waiting for her in the doorway when she turned back around to leave, a wax-sealed envelope in his hand.
“Is that what I think it is?” she asked, pointing at the envelope.
“It has the Chantry’s seal on it,” her father nodded, bringing it up to shoulder height and gesturing for her to take it. Safir stepped in quickly, reaching impatiently for the parchment before he withdrew it, the hint of a scowl forming on his lined face. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Yes,” she offered, not deigning to take her eyes off the envelope as he held it aloft.
“Safir, look at me.”
She did. The wrinkles around his sharpened eyes were deep, his judging frown framed by thin white hair.
“You will be careful, yes?”
She rolled her eyes. “No, Pa. I was planning on getting myself killed at the first opportunity.”
“Safir.” His voice was flat, neither angry nor amused, but she suspected his lack of enthusiasm did not stem from indifference. No, the slight angle in his brows said otherwise. He was worried.
“I’m… sorry,” she finally sighed. “I know I shouldn’t…”
“Just answer my question, please.”
“Yes, Pa, I will be careful.” Safir averted her gaze a moment as she struggled to force herself into seriousness and reassure him properly. “I’m not doing this on a whim. I need this cure, Pa. I won’t risk it. For anything.”
Apparently satisfied, her father sighed at her and, with a measured shake of his head, handed her the envelope. He left her to her devices the moment it was in her hand. Steeling herself, she set the envelope on the table, pushing aside Morrigan’s clues to clear some space before she broke the seal that held it shut. Unfolding the parchment inside confirmed that the letter was indeed from the Circle, its emblem stamped harshly into the top of the page.
It is a pleasure to know that the Hero of Ferelden still lives, and that she abides by proper channels. These past several years, Thedas could have used the guiding hand of someone like yourself, but I am sure your absence was well-justified.
I regret to inform you, however, that in the years since we saw you last, Florian has not returned to the Circle, and any attempts my templars have made to track him down have met with failure. Upon their discovery of his leave, the young man’s parents dispatched a troop of mercenaries to bring him back to us, but they came only with news of his foul mouth and ill temper. At any rate, we are reasonably certain that he is still alive and in the company of the Dalish woman. It is possible that his parents may know more of his current whereabouts, should you wish to investigate further. They are Magistrate Kingston and Florence Aldebrant, residing in West Hill.
Faint though our hope may be, Kinloch Hold would appreciate his prompt return, should he prove willing to be received. I wish you the best of luck on your travels, Warden.
Andraste guide you,
Safir sighed to herself and bowed her head. West Hill wasn’t terribly far, but it was no summer stroll either. The trip would take something like two weeks on foot, and that was far too long a journey to make without proper equipment. She glanced to her right at the stash of ill gotten gains that sat on the floor next to her bed, deciding it was about time to put them all on.
She made her way over to it, staring down her feet at the mass of gambeson and leathers and trying to decide which was the smartest order in which to don them. Eventually settling on switching out her thin leggings for the tougher and baggier pair she’d picked out the week before, she began the transition from civilian clothing to battle-ready armor. She pulled on the dark gray gambeson vest over a loose fitting shirt of olive linen with long, airy sleeves and fastened the four small buckles that held it snugly across her chest. Having already attached the silverite shin guards to a knee high pair of steel-tipped boots made the task of gearing up her legs as simple as slipping them on and making sure the fit was satisfactory. Over her shoulders went a set of leather pauldrons with smooth guards that ran from her shoulders down to her elbows, leaving the inside of her arms unprotected but comfortable. Finally, she slipped on the leather bracers that ended in fingerless gloves with steel plates on the backs of their hands. Adding the silverite over the top of the bracers proved cumbersome but nonetheless worthwhile, and completing the look was a twin sword belt with loops for sheaths hanging at either side of her hips.
The gear was no doubt an upgrade from what she’d worn during the Blight, offering better protection and more freedom of movement. Plus, she thought, looking down at the form-fitting ensemble in its fully equipped state, it was a good deal more flattering. She scooped up all of Morrigan’s supplies and threw them into a slightly worn rucksack, shouldering it and mentally adding the weight of two weeks’ worth of rations.
“Safir, honey,” her father began, approaching her open doorway with a question on his voice. “Do you think you could—Oh, my. You’re all dressed up.”
“How do I look?” she asked him, spreading out her arms and raising her eyebrows hopefully.
“Like someone who is leaving far too soon. You've only been here a year and a half,” Cyrion lamented. “I take it the news was good?”
“Not exactly. But it wasn’t bad, either. Finn’s not at the tower anymore. His parents are in West Hill, though. Maybe they’ll know more.”
“So you’re off to West Hill, then? Just like that?”
Safir nodded once, a farewell sigh already escaping her control.
Without another word, her father closed the distance between them and wrapped her in a sadistically tight hug. Struggling to laugh with what little air remained in her lungs, Safir returned the embrace and twisted her neck to kiss him on the cheek.
“Thank you, Pa,” she whispered, “for getting me out of that forest.”
“You don’t have to thank me for that, Little Owl. It’s what any good father would do for his precious little girl.”
“Well, now you’ve gone and made it weird…”
“Oh, just let me be a silly old man, will you?” he complained as he stepped back from the hug, still smiling despite his protest. “Now, go on before I start to cry. And don’t forget this.”
Safir looked down to see Fang resting on his open palm, its marbled blade still visibly sharp in its open-faced sheath.
“I know you’ll do her proud, Little Owl. You’ll do us both proud.”
“I’ll do my best,” she answered, hooking the dagger’s scabbard onto a loop at the back of her belt.
With silent smiles, they parted, Safir making her way out of the house and down the steps that led into the muddy alienage ground. West Hill awaited, but there were two more pieces of equipment yet to be collected before she could go there, and they were worth a brief detour.