Arms aching, feet sore, a thousand cuts and bruises large and small, the last of the torches gone out an hour ago -- or was it a day? Time lost all meaning in the Deep Roads with no companion to help mark its passing. Air still and stifling, neither hot nor cold but just there, she pushed through it like darkspawn tunneling through rock, digging digging digging as she searched for... what? The dens, the hunting grounds, a way out.
A way out. Yes, that was what she needed, a way out. An escape. Escape, with the Grey Wardens. That was what she had been seeking. Now she remembered.
She paused to rest, sheathed her sword and wiped the sweat from her brow, wincing as the movement caught the deep gash on her left arm, grazed by an arrow before she found the armor. Armor she had taken from a corpse, just like almost everything else she carried. As she had stripped the guardsman, she'd prayed, beseeching the stone for forgiveness. She sagged against the packed earthen wall and closed her eyes, little difference as it made. How had she been reduced to this? Robbing the dead for a heavy plate cuirass far inferior to the least set in her father's storeroom?
No.... no father, no storeroom. No palace. No name. No brothers. All gone; that life was over, had never been. She could not travel backwards. Forward was her only hope. Forward, to the Wardens.
But surely she should have found them by now, if the information from Gorim-- she doubled over, the freshly-sharpened blade of memory burying itself deep in her gut: the tears in his eyes, trembling arms holding her through iron bars as he kissed her one last time, lips bruised, the guard looking the other way. She clutched at her chest, wracked with silent sobs until her throat ached. Her Gorim, her second, the other half of her heart. He was gone, too, on his way to Denerim by now. And she could not scream out her grief, not if she wanted to preserve hope of seeing him again. She had to find the Wardens before the darkspawn or a patrol found her. The Wardens were here. She would permit no other option.
So she wiped away her tears -- the last, she told herself, she would ever shed for Gorim, for her father, for the life that was no more. Lifting her head high, she strode down the tunnel and in the direction of the light that surely flared in the distance, around the next turn, down the dip-- yes, that was light, her eyes dazzled as she burst into one of the ancient corridors, the sounds ahead resolving into human voices, five humans and one dwarf clustered around the man Duncan... one dwarf? She hadn't seen a dwarf in the contingent at the palace... Shaking the irrelevant thoughts from her mind, she sheathed her sword and stepped forward, and Duncan turned to look at her, his eyes wide with surprise.
"My Lady Aeducan! Where are your men?"
"I have no men, I--" The dwarf who had once been the Lady Sereda Aeducan, Princess of Orzammar, stopped to clear her throat of the dust that had choked her for so long. "I walk the Deep Roads alone."
Duncan looked her up and down, understanding coming into his eyes. "I see. I am most sorry to hear that."
"What happened?" It was one of the humans next to Duncan, a particularly tall specimen with a bow slung over his back. "Last we saw, you were getting a commission from your father the King, and..."
Duncan silenced the man with a look and a shake of his head. "It is not our place to pry into dwarven affairs," he said, sternly.
The man lowered his eyes. "Yes sir. Apologies, ma'am."
Sera let out a breath. She would not be forced to tell the tale; a great burden lifted from her shoulders. "Thank you," she said.
"Of course." Duncan crossed his arms and bowed to her. "It is our tradition in the Grey Wardens: when someone joins our order, they set their past aside, their names and their titles and their crimes, if any, and no one may compel you to speak of them. Do you wish to join us, then? Your exploits in the Deep Roads are legendary, and you are surely more than worthy. Though I found the recruit I was seeking in Orzammar, our numbers are few and a Blight is coming. I would welcome your aid more than I can say."
The recruit he was seeking? Only then did Sera have the opportunity to really consider the other dwarf in the group, hanging back behind the other two humans. A dwarva in leathers, slender but tough, reddish-blonde hair contrasting with bronze skin, and... was that a brand on her cheek? This was Duncan's promising recruit? An ancestors-cursed casteless?
But no. Sera checked herself. As far as the memories were concerned, she was no better. Worse -- Sera had shamed her father, her family, her blood. At least a casteless dwarf had no honor to lose. If becoming a Grey Warden provided Sera even a small way to earn some of her honor back, then she was obligated to try. And so she returned her attention to Duncan, and nodded. "I accept."
"Very good." Duncan held out a canteen, and Sera took it, gulping down the fresh water, heedless of how undignified she might look. "Can you travel? We have much ground to cover before we win free of the mountain and return to the surface."
Her legs whimpered in protest, but Sera willed the complaint away, handing the water back to Duncan with another nod. She had managed longer, harder marches than this; she would press forward. Duncan turned and began walking, and the other Wardens followed. Sera found herself falling into step besides the brand, who glanced at Sera, meeting her eyes for just a second before looking away, back at her boots. "Apologies, my lady," she murmured.
"No need." Sera shook her head. "We are both to be Grey Wardens, which makes us equals. And I'm not 'my lady'. Not anymore. It's just Sera now."
The brand-- no. Sera checked herself yet again -- she needed to stop thinking that word. The girl smiled and nodded. "Okay. And I'm just Natia. Not that I was ever anything besides that."
"A pleasure to meet you, Natia. I look forward to speaking with you more later." And they carried on in silence as Sera wondered just what they might find to talk about.
She would never have guessed Sera to be a noble, much less an Aeducan, not trudging up to them like that, alone, dressed in rusty armor and splattered with blood -- the darkspawn's, and probably also her own. But up close, it was obvious from her bearing, the way she held her chin high, her shoulders back. Exile or no, Sera looked like a woman who was used to getting her way. Natia was desperate to ask what had sent the princess into a death sentence -- the same fate Natia herself had only escaped thanks to Duncan -- but she heeded Duncan's warning to the other Wardens and held her tongue. It was to her advantage, anyway. There were plenty of things in her own past that she'd rather leave aside, too.
Really, she could still hardly believe her luck, to be plucked from Dust Town by the Grey Wardens. The Grey Wardens. And not just any Grey Warden, but their leader. She thought back to three days ago, when he had swept her out from under the glares of nobles and city guard out of town and into the courtyard, and under the watchful eyes of the paragons they stopped for a minute, Duncan apparently lost in thought. She'd glanced up at Duncan -- way, way up -- and wondered if she could dare ask him a question.
He lifted his head, and then looked down at her with raised eyebrows. "Is there something you needed?"
"No. Well, yes. Can I ask you something?"
He made a sweeping gesture with his left hand. "You may ask me anything you wish."
"If you're sure," she said, hesitant. "I don't want to be a bother or anything."
Duncan considered her for a long moment, then shook his head with a warm smile. "You won't be a bother. Am I right in thinking you are used to being discouraged from speaking to your 'betters'?" Natia responded with a reluctant nod. "Well. I do understand that such habits are difficult to break. But I want you to break them. You are with the Grey Wardens now, and as such you have no 'betters'. We are all equals in the Order, and others will see you as one of us, not as a casteless. Do you understand?"
"I think so," Natia said. "Is it true that there are no castes on the surface?"
"Correct. Well, at least not in the way you think of them." Duncan frowned. "There are humans with more and with less, and the way we treat the elves is not that different from how casteless are regarded by most dwarves. But more on that another time. For now, we must decide what to do with you." He tapped a finger against his elbow and regarded her more seriously. "A small team of Wardens are waiting for me at a camp in the Deep Roads, not far from here. My plan had been to meet them after the Proving, leaving any new recruits behind while we undertake a survey of the local darkspawn. If they are truly massing in the south for a Blight, then their usual nesting grounds would be emptier."
Natia nodded. "Makes sense."
"Good, I'm glad you see it. But now you are with me, and that complicates matters. You cannot wait behind in Orzammar, can you?" He tipped his head to the side with thoughtful eyes.
"Yeah." Natia kicked the ground with her toe. "I set foot in there, they do whatever they can to take me prisoner again. I violated their precious proving ground with my duster feet. They'll never forgive me for that."
"So I thought. In that case, we had probably better leave for the south right away." He glanced back toward town, frowning, his brow furrowed with concern, and then he sighed, but the worry cleared. "I'll just send a message to my men."
"Are you sure?" Natia knew that look; it was the one Rica had always worn when she had to choose between buying food and paying their protection money to the Carta. "I mean, I appreciate you wanting to keep me out of trouble, believe me. But it sounds like finding out about the darkspawn is important, too. I'm sure there's somewhere safe for me to wait."
Duncan stroked his beard. "I would like to complete the scouting expedition, if I can. But I was to meet with the king first. That is most definitely not a safe place for you to be."
"Nope. I'm sure the Aeducans would kill me as soon as look at me. But I could wait in the Deep Roads, with the Wardens."
Duncan's frown deepened. "I would prefer to avoid that, if I can. The Deep Roads are not safe for you yet."
"What do you mean? I thought Grey Wardens patrolled the deep roads all the time."
"They do," he replied, "but you are not a Warden yet." He covered his chin with his hand again. "What about the surface? There is an encampment there with many merchants, mostly dwarves, who facilitate trade with Orzammar. Another new surfacer dwarf more or less is unlikely to attract much attention."
"That might work," Natia said. "Although Beraht had contacts there. Lyrium smugglers. If they know what I did to him, they might shank me. Or they might give me a medal." She shrugged. "With Beraht's people, who knows? But it might not be any safer than the Deep Roads."
"Hmm. It seems there is no one right answer, then. Which do you prefer?"
Natia could only stare up at Duncan, dumbfounded. He was in charge, and he was asking her opinion? He actually cared what she wanted? "But you're the boss."
"And you are taking the risk," he replied. "Therefore, it should be your decision to make."
"Okay." Natia didn't have to think long. "Then I pick the Deep Roads. I've never even seen a darkspawn, so if it's going to be my life's work to fight them, I might as well learn what I'm up against." And if she died tomorrow, she'd rather a darkspawn do the deed than one of Beraht's thugs.
"Very well. The Deep Roads it is. I know a secret entrance on the other side of the courtyard."
That was how it had begun, and how Natia had found herself in an encampment with half a dozen Grey Wardens. She'd been too shy to say much, but they'd welcomed her, and not asked too many questions. That was the rule, Duncan had said -- why you joined the Wardens, whatever had brought you there, was your own affair. All that mattered was your willingness to fight the darkspawn.
That didn't keep her from being powerfully curious though, especially about the newest addition to their party. When they made camp that night, Lady Aeducan -- no, she reminded herself, just Sera now -- sat alone by the fire, eyes haunted as she stared into the flames. Whatever had brought her here, becoming a Warden probably wasn't the glorious salvation that it was for Natia. She watched the fallen princess for a moment, hands folded together. Would Sera welcome company? Probably not, she decided, and she retreated into the tent to get some sleep. Tomorrow would be another long hard day.
"Detected?" Natia looked at Sera, who responded with a shrug. If Grey Wardens had some special way of sensing darkspawn, she wasn't familiar with it. Both the dwarves turned to Duncan, who held up a hand for silence, mouthing the word "Wait" in their direction. Then he caught the eye of one of the archers, who pulled his bow, notched an arrow in place, and crept forward, leaving the others behind.
Long, agonizing minutes passed in silence and darkness, the weight of the narrow corridor pressing down upon them. Sera turned her head around, listening for some sign, anything -- was that distant skritching noise a deepstalker, a giant spider, her own heightened imagination? She trusted the Grey Wardens to know the Deep Roads better than ordinary humans, but they were still only humans, not born to the depths like she was.
"Ho!" The shout came from ahead, followed by the twang of a bow string. Duncan shouted in response, pulling his sword and his dagger as he charged, and the other Wardens followed. Mindful of Duncan's orders to hang back, Sera still unsheathed her sword and held it ready, balanced in both hands, ready to strike; out of the corner of her eye, she could see Natia doing the same, one dagger in each fist.
"Finally, some action," the girl muttered.
They'd both be drowning in action soon enough, Sera thought. Then there was no more time for thought -- footsteps were coming, and they were not human: it was two genlocks, bursting out from around the bend ahead. Sera lowered her blade and charged, bellowing a war cry. The sword pierced the neck of one of the genlocks, passing straight through and taking off its head; she whirled around to stop the next, but it was already on Natia, too close for her to engage. "Beware the blood!" she called out, and she saw Natia nod, then hop around the genlock to stab it square in the back.
"Hah!" The genlock fell, and Natia wiped her blades against the wall before putting them away, a look of satisfaction on her face. "My first darkspawn kill."
"It will be far from your last." The voice was Duncan's, from behind them, and Sera turned around to see his grim expression.
The pride faded from Natia's voice. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No, no. You defended yourself, just as I asked. And you didn't touch the blood?"
"No, we both avoided it," Sera replied. "I've long known of the perils of coming too close to the darkspawn dead, and I advised her to stay clear."
"Good." Duncan sighed with relief, and then the worried furrow returned. "It is as we feared: these grounds are too lightly populated. There were fewer than a dozen genlocks here, and no alphas. They have moved on, likely to the surface."
"So." Sera nodded. "The Blight, then." Was it wrong that a part of her was secretly glad to hear it, to know that Orzammar would be spared the threat for a little while if the darkspawn were rampaging on the surface? But she remembered: Orzammar was no longer her concern. She was to be a Grey Warden, and stopping the Blight would be her cause.
"The Blight." Duncan echoed her words with a grim nod. "We must get to King Cailan in the south as quickly as possible. We make for the surface."
The surface. Sera put her sword away and hid a shiver. She had known this was coming. Time to get it over with.
The words had been repeating themselves in Natia's head for hours, the thought thrilling to her bones. She had thought she was content in Dust Town, doing just enough for Beraht to keep him off her back, to keep Rica safe and Mother in ale, but the more she thought about it, the more excited she became. She could be anything on the surface, anyone. No one would care about the mark on her face. Duncan didn't, the other Wardens didn't, and Sera-- well, she was pretending well enough. It was scary, too, but how could she turn down the opportunity?
Duncan stopped, the men gathering around him, and he murmured a few instructions to Seth, the Grey Warden archer, who nodded before he ran forward. Then Duncan beckoned the dwarves to him. "I sent Seth ahead to check on conditions at the exit. I'd rather not walk into an ambush if we can help it. Also, if we can, I prefer to exit the Deep Roads at night so we aren't blinded by the sun." He looked back and forth from Natia to Sera, solemn. "There are many things that will be different for you, on the surface. You have no need to fear them, but take whatever pace you need to adjust."
Natia nodded while Sera looked at the ground, then murmured an assent. She didn't seem nearly as eager to break out of here as Natia was; Natia supposed she couldn't blame her. Before her exile, Orzammar had to have been a good home for Sera. Life in the Diamond Quarter had to be a lot better than being a duster. Natia had almost as much trouble imagining it as she did life on the surface. And now Rica was living there! Natia wondered about her patron again and hoped he was treating her well. Better than Beraht, anyway.
"It's clear!" Seth's voice rang back to them, and Natia looked up to see him in the corridor ahead, gesturing for them to join him. "No one waiting, the sun is down, and it's a nice evening." He glanced to the dwarves with a twinkling grin. "You'll get rained on soon enough, might as well have your first night on the surface be a warm, dry one."
Natia wrinkled her nose and looked up at Duncan. "Rain?"
Duncan chuckled. "Water that falls from the sky. As Seth says, you'll experience it soon enough. We are in Ferelden, after all." He stepped aside and ushered them forward. "After you."
Natia surged forward, and after only a slight hesitation, Sera followed, falling into step beside her. It was all Natia could do not to break into an eager run, but she forced her steps to slow -- Sera seemed to want company, and they were sisters now, companions. She snuck a quick look at Sera's blank face, the enforced calm on her broad features. It was almost stranger to think of Lady Aeducan as a sister as to think of these human men as her brothers.
Together they turned a corner and were faced with a door, made of the same metal as the doors to the Deep Roads within Orzammar. But rather than being tightly shut, this one was cracked open, and Natia felt a cool breeze coming through the entrance, hitting first her skin and then her nose, bringing with it a riot of scents beyond her description. She gasped; Sera grabbed her hand and squeezed it. Someone pulled the door the rest of the way open, and Natia and Sera stepped together into a new world.
Sera's hand went slack; Natia pulled herself free and took a few steps forward, toward the enormous plants with brown stalks, so big that she couldn't put her arms around them. Leaning back, she followed the stems up, their arms dotted with dark green spines, and then up, up, up even further until she was looking into the yawning space above them, like a cave roof painted dark blue, shading to a lighter blue along the edges. "The sky," she whispered. A few points of white light dotted the canopy, and at first she had to blink to make sure she wasn't imagining them. "And those are... stars?" She lowered her gaze to look at Duncan, who stood next to Sera, his hand on her shoulder, smiling. "And I guess those must be trees. I saw a picture in a book, once. But-- are they always so big?"
"Not always," Duncan replied. "The trees in the cities are usually smaller. But those may also seem big to you, at first."
"Wow." Natia took another deep breath; she recognized the smell of earth, and of water, but it was all much lighter and cleaner than she was used to, and mixed with it all was an oddly sharp, green scent. She came closer to the trees and put her hand out, the green smell growing stronger, and she touched the tree. Its skin was rough beneath her hands; she placed her palm against it and pushed, and it was as solid as a stone wall. "Amazing," she said, looking up again, through the arms -- branches? There were so many things she didn't know! -- for another peek at the sky. The endless, open sky, as full of mysteries and possibilities as the surface itself.
A hand fell on her shoulder, and Sera turned to see Duncan looking at her. "You are all right?"
"Fine," she said, and stepped out from beneath his hand lest he feel her quaking and mistake it for fear. "Just, give me a minute."
"Of course. You will have many questions, I am sure," Duncan said as Natia emerged from behind the trees, a wide smile on her face. "Do not be ashamed to ask them. Any of us will be happy to answer them as best we can. For now, we will make camp, give you the night to acclimate. The air out here is lighter than you're be used to. But be ready to march tomorrow morning. We have a long way to go, and time is running short."