“You didn’t know her like I did,” Leliana snaps.
“I knew her before you did!” Cullen bites back.
Josephine comes to a full halt, clutching her board, looking to Cassandra for guidance. Cassandra’s expression tells her little apart from “she is annoyed”, which is what Josephine gets from her regardless of situational factors. They have both come to a halt, both uncertain how to proceed. Walking into the argument is not ideal, and walking away from it isn’t really an option. Their companions’ voices are carrying well across camp, and all those within earshot—and especially those within Cassandra’s sightline—are suddenly fixated on their work with far greater focus than usual.
“What does that matter?” Leliana is just barely visible behind Cullen’s tent, swaying from side to side in agitation while Cullen paces a tight circle. “You didn’t know her. You were her guard dog, not her friend. Not her lover, though I know you wanted to be.”
“That is—That has nothing to do with it!” He stops, grinding a hand through his hair and turning away to hide his face—an obvious move, one Leliana will see through easily. “She had associations with a known blood mage, the same man who went on to poison Arl Eamon. She told me to my face that she would rather allow a Maleficar to live than take action for the greater good. She resisted the Circle even in those days. You know this.”
“How terrible of her to want more than life in a cage,” Leliana sneers.
Josephine hates hearing her friend’s voice turn so nasty and poisonous. It doesn’t sound right. She twitches as if to pull away, but Cassandra touches her arm, gently but firmly keeping her in place, and continues forward. This cannot continue, she knows it. Josephine follows like a small, anxious dog.
“I am not disputing her heroism,” says Cullen, “and I know she had her reasons. But that doesn’t mean we can trust her. She has turned to dark alternatives more than once.”
“She never turned to blood magic.”
“No.” Now Cullen turns to face her, scowling darkly. “She only turned to Morrigan.”
“All right.” Cassandra finally shears through the dispute, pinning both of them under an intense glare. “I believe everyone at camp has gathered more than enough insight about your respective relationships with the Warden. Perhaps, now that that is out of the way, we can return to civilized discourse.”
Leliana gives a derisive scoff and turns away, while Cullen shrinks and ducks his head down, looking appropriately cowed. Josephine finds herself at a loss, standing in the midst of it all, silent and feeling rather foolish.
Fortunately, Cassandra is all action as usual. “Come with me,” she says briskly and to no one of them in particular, and struts away, leaving them all to follow.
Cassandra takes them a little ways into the woods, enough distance from camp as to give them relative privacy, trees shadowing them against the fading daylight. Cassandra turns to face them, arms folded across her breastplate, dark eyes moving rapidly between Cullen and Leliana. “If you have a dispute to settle, you will do it away from the eyes and ears of our followers,” she says. “We have to maintain some semblance of order. That is the entire purpose of this endeavor. When you allow your emotions to get the better of you like this, we look lost. We cannot afford such visible weakness.”
“You’re right, of course,” mutters Cullen, ever intent on appearing reasonable. “I apologize for my part in it.”
“You’re apologizing to Cassandra?” Leliana shoots him a look. “Not to me?”
“For what? Stating my opinion?” Cullen meets her eyes, seemingly bolstered by Cassandra’s mitigating (or not) presence. “I’m sorry that I stated it loudly, not that it is mine.”
“Your opinion is uninformed. Baseless.” Leliana steps forward, and Cullen steps back like clockwork. He’s afraid of her, of course. He should be. “I am professionally bound to be offended by your ignorance.”
“Both of you, please,” Josephine finally cuts in, feeling her face flush even as she raises her voice. She is well accustomed to the art of argument, both as head of her house and as a former servant of the Antivan crown—but interrupting a heated discussion between friends is another matter entirely. She yet knows very little of Cullen, and she would never presume to know Leliana’s business better than she. They’re both looking at her now, perhaps startled that she inserted herself, or perhaps just ready to listen to reason. She can’t quite tell, and she has very little reason to offer. She has only heard stories about the Hero of Ferelden, some unsavory, most heroic, and all of it secondhand at best. She certainly never knew the young woman. What right does she have to interfere like this?
“None of this matters,” says Cassandra, saving her from that mire. “Not even Leliana can find the Warden.We will have to turn to other options, as we have already discussed. I am following up Cullen’s leads in Kirkwall. This is all we should be focusing our attention on.”
There is uneasy silence after that. No one can object, but so much has been said now, Josephine expects neither Cullen nor Leliana will be able to move on anytime soon. Both of them are hotheaded in their ways, and they clearly both have personal ties to this matter.
Still, someone ought to speak, and Josephine can’t just leave all of it to Cassandra. “I believe we all could do with some rest,” she says tentatively. “I know it feels we have no time for that, but…”
“You’re right.” Cullen heaves a sigh and leans as if to walk back to camp, though it seems he will not do so without dismissal from Cassandra. A soldier to the last. “This is getting us nowhere.”
“Even if just one closed mind is opened tonight,” says Leliana with pursed lips and narrowed eyes, “then we are getting somewhere.”
“How is that working out for you?” says Cullen dryly, and at an impatient nod from Cassandra he departs.
The three women stand in a half circle for a moment until Cassandra lets out an irritable grunt and stalks back to camp, a wordless acknowledgment that she has nothing helpful to say to Leliana right now. No, that task falls to Josephine.
For her part, Josephine looks awkwardly at the ground, peripherally aware of Leliana’s gradually relaxing posture. The former bard lets her guard down just a little, turning away and looking up at the sky, breathing out with a half-hearted chuckle.
“You don’t have to tell me I went too far,” she says. “I already know.”
“Cullen is… very stubborn,” offers Josephine.
“So am I.” Leliana smiles ruefully, her gaze passing from sky to earth. “I don’t know how he could even know about what happened with Morrigan, though I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me. Stories and rumors are my business, after all. But that was…” She shakes her head.
Josephine is quiet for a few moments before she ventures to say, “I am not certain I have heard that part of the story.”
“It’s possible it reached Cullen because he was a Templar,” Leliana muses. “Templars do love their horror stories about mages, don’t they? We were associated with an apostate, Morrigan, supposed daughter of Flemeth—I’m sure you’ve heard that part, at least.”
“I heard about her, certainly.” Josephine listens attentively, trying not to look as fascinated as she feels. She has always held her tongue when it came to questioning Leliana about her time with the Hero of Ferelden, and to finally get some of the dirt for free, so to speak, is rather thrilling. “And they said she disappeared after the Archdemon fell.”
“That much is true.” Leliana wraps her arms around herself, a rare sign of vulnerability. “The Warden was… she was desperate. She did not want to die. Morrigan offered her a way out, some… ritual. I only know a little of it myself. Aryn didn’t want to talk about it, not even to me. I’ve pieced together what came of it from rumor, just as Cullen has. That the former Teyrn Loghain was somehow persuaded to conceive a child with Morrigan. That somehow this child was the way out—that because of its existence, they could defeat the Archdemon and live. It sounds horrible, no? Not a noble path. Not the way of the Wardens. That she would coerce another man into Morrigan’s web like that. She had even forgiven Loghain, I think, for what happened at Ostagar. It wouldn’t have been that she was vindictive, or felt malice toward him. None of it sounded like her. After I heard about that, I admit, I… I was relieved when the Grand Cleric called me away.”
Josephine feels a little colder, whether from the encroaching twilight or the story she cannot say. She shakes herself slightly and offers Leliana her arm. “These woods are no place for stories about witches,” she says lightly. “Let’s go to my tent and we can talk while we have something to eat.”
“As you wish.” Leliana takes her arm and follows her out. “But I think the woods are exactly the place for such a story.”
“Well, you would.” Josephine guides them back to camp, dutifully tracking a wide berth around Cullen’s tent and circling back to hers. The camp is quiet again. Many have dispersed to their own lodgings for the evening, or are collecting around the fires.
“I’ve been trying to save the last of my chocolates,” says Josephine as she lets Leliana into her tent, “but I think we can finish them off tonight.”
“I would never want to deprive you,” says Leliana, though she does not actually object. The two of them sit around the warm little lantern in the center of the tent and Josephine opens up her tin of dwindling Orlesian delicacies.
“I was not aware Cullen knew the Hero before she was the Hero,” says Josephine after a few moments.
Leliana laughs softly. “Yes you did,” she says. “You knew he was a Templar at Ferelden’s Circle when the disaster happened there, and that she came from there also. You could have put that together. What you’re asking how I knew he wanted to be with her.”
“Well.” Josephine shrugs, a little embarrassed. “Perhaps.”
“The answer is not very amusing, I’m afraid.” Leliana sits back in the memory, her expression devoid of sympathy. She only looks tired. “He was one of the only Templars left alive by the abominations. They had tortured him, all but completely broken his mind. He thought we were demons showing him what he wanted, and what he wanted was not just saviors; what he wanted was her. He told us all of this, just sputtered it out right in front of me. He couldn’t know that she and I were—But it was very awkward nevertheless. It’s not that I was jealous of the poor man. I pitied him. But what was she supposed to do? She could not return his affections. And what he was asking—he wanted her to support invoking the Rite of Annulment. Can you imagine? Taking the word of a man who’d been bent to the breaking point, consenting to kill every innocent that remained at the Tower? She chose the right path. I believe Cullen knows that, somewhere under all that Templar training. If he is still bitter about it in any way, that is his problem.
“Of course, that isn’t the only reason he doesn’t want us to find her.” Leliana fixes Josephine with an intent look, stopping the possibility of any further discussion about Cullen in its tracks. It’s just as well. Josephine isn’t exactly close to the former Templar, but she feels rather awkward learning so much about him from another source regardless. And anyway, how could she say no to learning more of this scandalous history, when Leliana’s in such a rare mood to speak?
“No?” she says, not bothering to hide her curiosity.
“Oh, no.” Leliana smiles, though it doesn’t quite reach her eyes, there’s something bitter and tense about it. “I’m certain if Cassandra hadn’t interrupted, the discussion would have inevitably turned to Vigil’s Keep, and then we’d really have been putting on a show.”
“Is this about what happened in Amaranthine?” Josephine sits up a little straighter. “I heard about that. About… talking darkspawn? Is it true?”
“Indeed.” Leliana studies a piece of chocolate rather than eating it, as though it holds some secret she needs to keep. “I wasn’t there for it. I was still shaken about what I knew of the Morrigan’s ritual. And I was with the Grand Cleric, on the path that would eventually lead me here.” She hesitates, still looking at the chocolate, and at her hands. “She was quite heroic, once again. She saved the city when all said that was impossible. She oversaw the fortification of the Keep, fortifications that allowed it to hold for days longer than expected, and to be rebuilt.”
That doesn’t seem like the end of the thought, but Leliana says no more, leaving Josephine to watch her, feeling oddly nervous. Whatever’s going to come next cannot be good, to cause such deep dark silence.
“What I heard was there were two warring factions of talking, thinking darkspawn,” says Leliana eventually. “Aryn destroyed one of them. The other—the one who called himself the Architect, who apparently wanted to free the darkspawn from the calling, to put an end to any future Blights—she allowed him to live. She allied herself with him.”
Josephine doesn’t know how to appropriately react to this. That is no simple piece of information, deserving no frivolous response, but neither does she wish to make any solid declarations when she has nowhere near enough information to make an opinion. In the end, she simply says, “Oh.”
“Yes.” Leliana laughs again, and finally eats her long-awaited chocolate. “‘Oh’, indeed.”
It seems Josephine is going to have question now if she wants anymore. Rather guiltily, she asks, “Was this Architect… trustworthy? Was it truly to end the Blights?”
“Nobody knows.” Leliana sighs. “I should have been there. Should have helped her. But I wasn’t. I only know what I’ve heard. We traveled together for a while after that but we rarely spoke of it. The Orlesian Wardens were furious. They thought it was an immense betrayal. That not only would there be another Blight, but that it would be worse than ever before, led by intelligent, organized darkspawn. Not an irrational fear, I think. You can only imagine how terrible that would be. Aryn took a great risk, following her instincts, or whatever it was that told her to let the Architect live.”
That does sound blood curdling. Josephine feels that chill again, even in the relative warmth of her tent. She folds her hands tightly in her lap.
“But they say the Deep Roads have been quieter since then,” says Leliana. “There hasn’t been much stirring of any darkspawn anywhere. Who knows? It could be unrelated. It could be she made the right decision. She did the best she could. She wasn’t the wisest person I have ever met. She was not even the bravest. She wanted freedom, and she wanted to do right. How could I pretend to know what she felt when confronted with this new creature, with whatever he said to her—maybe she felt she understood him. I can’t know what it was like to live in the Circle, and I can’t know what it was like to be elven; hated twice over for factors beyond her control. Maybe she saw something in the Architect that was worth protecting. But anyone who knows that story will have difficulty thinking of her as simply Ferelden’s savior. Her tale is no longer pure and heroic. It has been darkened by the choices she made. Even if we could find her, Cullen would never trust her. I doubt even Cassandra would, though she’d be more subtle about it. Part of me can’t even blame them.”
She heaves a sigh and waves a hand at Josephine. “So there you have it,” she says. “The tale of the Warden, the parts people don’t usually tell.”
“I am glad to hear them from you,” says Josephine, fidgeting a bit. “Thank you.”
“Of course.” Leliana smiles, finally a genuine one, if small. “Thank you for letting me go on. It has been a while since I…” She chuckles and shakes her head. “Aryn always let me go on and on about whatever suited me. Orlesian fashion, shoes… my stories… my foolish young ideas about elves. It was those nights that she just let me talk when I realized she was special to me. She never judged me for any of it. And I do not wish to judge her for anything she did. I could not have done all she did.”
Josephine nods, taking a moment to digest all of this. “I think you did your best just as she did,” she says after a moment, “if that is all right to say. And I think you are still doing your best now.”
“If only I could agree with that,” says Leliana, “but thank you for saying so.”
Silence takes them for a few moments. Leliana shifts and stretches. “I should let you sleep,” she says.
“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” says Josephine. There is no expectation here, nothing hinted. She knows Leliana well enough to see that if she returns to her empty tent she will be getting no sleep, and that she is hiding a great deal of sadness beneath her calm, settled exterior. After all that troubling talk of the past, she must be missing her love a great deal. Josephine isn’t one to send her out in the cold after that.
Leliana knows Josephine’s motivations just as well, and she smiles again, softly. “Thank you, Josie,” she says. “I suppose I might like a bit more company. But don’t let me keep you up.”
It’s easy enough to feign sleep until Leliana has finally dozed off. Josie keeps one arm draped lazily over her friend’s waist, curled against her, both to keep warmth and to give her that comfort and closeness that she so dreadfully misses. Leliana would never admit it, but Josephine is reasonably certain this is the only way she can sleep soundly anymore.
When Josephine wakes the next morning Leliana is gone, and her chocolate tin is mysteriously refilled, and adorned with a little note that says One secret stash to replace another.