Actions

Work Header

Justify the Means

Chapter Text

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.

-x-

Trudging down the corridor, Natia Brosca found herself wondering what she and a princess of Orzammar might ever have 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.

-x-

"We're close." Duncan held up his hand, and the party halted around him. He lifted his head and looked around, and his brow furrowed. "Too close. We should not have been able to draw so near to a darkspawn nesting ground, not without being detected."

"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.

-x-

The surface!

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.

-x-

Duncan's side was warm and solid and safe, but Sera could not stay safe forever. Stop being ridiculous, you aren't going to fly off into space. Still, her first step was tentative and shaky; she balled her hands into fists to keep her fingers from trembling. Instead of looking up, she focused her eyes on the ground, on the carpeting of dark green grass beneath her feet. She closed her eyes and breathed deep, the scent of the greenery mixing with the richer, more familiar aroma of dirt and rocks. Then she opened her eyes and faced forward to look through the trees to the horizon. So far away; how could anything visible be that far away?

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."

Chapter Text

The party marched out of the Brecilian Forest and toward the King's Highway, the events of the past few days weighing them all down as much as the muddy paths that trapped their feet. The sky above the trees was a leaden gray, and rain dripped off leaves to land on the grass and, every so often, splash Natia on the nose.

So much had changed in the six months since Natia had taken her first steps out of the Deep Roads and into a peaceful wood. Six months, since Duncan had gently teased her about not knowing what rain was. Well, she was sure familiar with it now. Duncan had warned her, but she could never have imagined... a lot of things, really. The devastation at Ostagar, long hot days spent trudging to Denerim and back, the horrors of Soldier's Peak and Redcliffe and the Circle of Magi, this mad scheme to recover a golem -- though Shale had proven useful, Natia would never deny that -- and now, to top it all off, this slaughter of the werewolves. This trip had brought one massacre after another, and far too often Natia was wielding her blades against enemies who felt like innocents.

She batted a raindrop away and looked up at Alistair, trudging along next to her, his eyes fixed on the ground. She hesitated to speak to him -- what if this was all in her head, what if she only imagined that things could have gone better? Sometimes she thought she saw a spark of concern in his eyes when he looked at Sera, and a few times he had spoken out against her plans. But so far, he'd always stopped short of moving to stop her. Would he be willing to take action if Sera went too far?

The only way to find out was to ask. She nudged him shyly with her elbow; he looked down at her with a surprised expression. "Yes?"

"Alistair-- can we talk for a second?" She shot a meaningful glance up to the head of the line where Sera walked with Morrigan. "Just the two of us?"

"Um, sure." Alistair glanced up ahead as well, then stepped off the path, taking shelter under the canopy of the trees. "About what?"

"I'm, ah. Getting a little concerned. About the way Sera is leading us."

"Ah." An expression somewhere between disappointment and relief flushed across Alistair's face. "That-- okay. I thought maybe-- never mind." He shook his head, the color already fading from his cheeks. "Tell me more."

"Maybe it's not my place to question, but..." Natia took another quick look around, falling silent as Leliana walked past, Dog at her heels and followed closely by Shale. She trusted Leliana, but not as much as Alistair; she hadn't had many opportunities to talk with the golem yet. Dog, of course, she trusted with her life, but smart as the mabari was, he couldn't help her with this particular problem. No, Alistair was the only choice for raising her concerns right now. He'd been kind to her since the beginning, friendly, even gave her a gift -- she still felt warm and flustered when she remembered the rose he'd picked for her. She'd started to wonder... but then he'd admitted that he was a royal bastard and started pulling away from Sera and Natia both. Just as well; thinking about Alistair sometimes got complicated. Better to keep things simple. She cleared her throat and continued. "Does it ever seem to you that Sera is a little... rash? A little quick to use violence to solve our problems?"

Alistair raised an eyebrow. "We're Grey Wardens. Violence is sort of our reason for existing, isn't it?"

"I suppose. And I know that sometimes we haven't got much choice but to fight. But other times it feels like there ought to be another way out, you know? Like... what just happened in the forest. With the werewolves." Natia lowered her eyes. "It just-- it seems like we ought to have been able to negotiate. Talk Zathrian into releasing the spell. Or find some way to force him into it. The werewolves were dangerous, but the Lady of the Forest seemed to really want to work things out." She sighed. "I don't know. Sera was a princess. She knows more about things like war and diplomacy than I do. But when she acts like that, all quick and decisive without stopping to figure out what people really want, what compromises they're willing to make, it bothers me. And I know you see it, too. You can't tell me you're happy about having to kill all those mages. Or with the way things went down in Redcliffe."

Alistair sighed and looked away. "I suppose that was hard to miss."

Natia had to let out a wry chuckle as she nodded. Alistair's fight with Sera in camp that night had been epic. As much as Alistair claimed to dislike the Lady Isolde, he sure seemed unhappy that Sera had chosen to sacrifice her to stop the demon possessing Connor. Natia didn't know anything about demons or blood magic, but she figured demons had to be more dangerous, and better to kill a grown woman than a little boy. Still... "That was a hard decision. And there's a part of me that's glad I didn't have to make it. But I agree with what you said that night -- we should have looked harder for another way. Maybe gone to the Circle Tower, or done some research in the castle library. Even if we ultimately made the same choice, at least we'd know we tried."

"You're right." Alistair shook his head slowly. "But what can we do about it? Sera's taken charge. Shale and Leliana seem happy enough to follow her. So does Morrigan -- she got buddy-buddy with the witch awfully quick." He wrinkled his nose as though he'd just walked through a pile of nug shit, and Natia had to repress another laugh. "And I told her from the beginning that I'd let her run things. If I were going to assert my senior status, I should have done it after Ostagar, but..." He lowered his eyes, grief shadowing his face. "I wasn't in much shape for anything then."

"I know." Impulsively, Natia let her hand fall on his arm and squeezed it. "You can't be blamed for that."

"Thanks." He gave her a weary smile. "Anyway. Let's just see how things go for awhile, all right? And if things get worse, well." He shrugged. "We'll figure that out when we have to."

"Sounds like a plan." Not much of a plan, really. But at least she had an ally now. "We should get moving; wouldn't want to get left behind." She stepped back onto the path and Alistair followed, her thoughts turning to an uneasy anticipation of that night's conversation at camp.

-x-

It was nearly dusk by the time Sera felt ready to stop: she did not expect any repercussions from the decision to kill Witherfang, but it seemed best to be a good distance from the forest where she had held sway as the Lady regardless. Besides, this was the best campsite she'd seen in weeks -- near the river, sheltered from the road by trees, but open enough to lay a fire and pitch several tents. It would be nice to have a space of her own for once, separate from the others. Not that she didn't like the others, and get along with them well enough. But she'd never been forced to share her personal space to this extent. She supposed it was not so different from being on patrol, but when patrol lasted several months...

How long had it been, anyway? Time felt so different on the surface. She turned to Morrigan, about to ask, then stopped. After all these months, how bad would she look, not yet knowing the answer? So she held the question, and instead gathered the rest of the group around her. "We stop here tonight," she said. "Then tomorrow we make for Orzammar."

"Orzammar?" Natia, who had already let her pack fall to the ground, turned to look at her with surprise.

Sera nodded. "Returning is a risk for both of us, but we have to take it eventually. And I understand that it's best to head that way before the winter snows come and make passage too difficult."

"It makes sense," Natia said, slowly. She glanced up and over her shoulder at Alistair. "But... what about Arl Eamon? We've delayed following up on that lead about the Sacred Ashes so long already. How much longer will he last? And what if the trail goes cold?"

Sera tightened her jaw. Why so many questions? Natia had never spoken against her decisions before. "The healers all said that Eamon's condition is stable now that he is no longer being poisoned. He can wait; the weather won't. All right?"

Alistair lowered his eyes; Natia looked at her for a moment longer, then shrugged. "If you say so. I just can't help comparing it to the way we went off to Denerim first, before even going to Redcliffe, when we knew something was wrong there. Maybe if we'd gone there first, before the attacks on the village..."

"Hindsight, that's all; we had no idea that anything was wrong in Redcliffe." Sera crossed her arms and darkened her glare. "We had to start with Denerim, to gather intelligence about Loghain and his plans, and find out the truth of his campaign against the Wardens." And Gorim... Sera shook her head, quickly, to banish both the thought and the pain that came with it. Her personal desires had no bearing on that decision, and what if they had? If Gorim had been whole and hearty, and willing to travel with them, he'd have been an asset, and now they'd be thanking her.

"Fair enough." Natia walked over to Bodahn's wagon and pulled out their stash of tents, ready to put them up. Sera kept watching, the sense of unease not fading. She was the leader here; how dare a br-- someone with no command experience think she know better? It did not bear contemplation.

With a weary sigh, she pulled off her weapon and set it on the ground, then rummaged through her pack to find her soap. She would get clean toinght if it was the last thing she ever did.

The water was cold from the rain, but Sera didn't care; a bend in the stream's path had created an eddy deep enough for her to submerge herself, and she took advantage of it, lowering herself into the water, uncoiling her braids and letting them unravel down her back. Perhaps she should chop them off, but she'd had many years to become proud of her long, thick hair, and even without servants it wasn't too much trouble to comb it and put it back up. Still, it would be nice to have it clean again. She dunked her head under the water and scrubbed at her scalp, thoughts drifting back to when she had taken charge of this band of misfits, after the disaster at Ostagar.

Yes, she had done it; who else was fit to do it? Alistair was her senior as a Grey Warden, true, but he'd never held any command position and seemed disinclined to take one. She'd not been at all surprised when he revealed himself to be a king's bastard who'd been put in his place since birth. And Natia-- the girl was a good fighter, swift and sure-footed, able to get behind enemies and take them down quickly, and probably the best scout Sera had ever seen. But did that make her a leader? Sera had been groomed to take command her entire life; Natia was a low-ranking Carta thug. Smarter than most, true, and a fast learner, but nothing that qualified her to take charge of gathering an army. Certainly she did not hold a candle to Gorim as a second, if only--

Sera took a deep breath and plunged into the water, willing the chill to take her bad memories away, but too late, she closed her eyes and was in Denerim again, just as if it were yesterday....

-x-

The city was big. Big and tall, magnitudes grander than Lothering, and the sight of the city walls, the palace, the towers reaching into the sky was somehow more imposing than anything carved into the rocks of Orzammar. How was Sera supposed to find anyone in this place?

On the other hand, they were unlikely to attract much attention, especially if they didn't advertise that they were Grey Wardens. Especially with Bodahn along, they looked like a band of dwarven merchants -- the humans could easily be mistaken for bodyguards, hired to protect their goods -- and everyone knew enough to keep their mouths shut regarding the truth of their errand here: to gather intelligence regarding Loghain's next move, to seek out information on the Sacred Ashes, and to find Gorim. That last, of course, Sera had admitted to no one, but it was a reason for coming, nonetheless -- another sword arm could be only to the good, and she would feel much better about leading this band with her lover and second at her side. Perhaps, if the Orlesian Grey Wardens ever arrived, she could see about getting him recruited.

She scanned every group she saw, every person who might be a dwarf, her heart beating faster with each possible sighting, breath rushing out in disappointment when she turned out to be wrong. Next to her, Natia turned, a slight frown of worry on her face. "What's up? You seem to be looking for someone."

"What?" Sera turned a serene smile on Natia. "Oh, no, just keeping my eye out for guards. Or anyone else who might make our lives difficult."

"As long as we don't pull out the 'Look, Grey Wardens here' banner, I think we should be all right," Alistair drawled from behind them. "Although it might be best to stay away from the Templar barracks -- someone there might recognize me. Maybe we could start in the market? That's where most of the gossipy types gather, and we need to restock anyway."

"A fine idea," Sera said. "All right, Alistair, lead the way."

He pointed them into an alley -- too narrow for Bodahn's wagon, so he parked and set up a stall just inside the city gates -- and let them through the dark, quiet streets, off the main thoroughfare, winding past houses and shops, until they reached the river. A bridge terminated at a heavy wooden gate, which a guard opened to let them through after a brief word from Alistair. It opened into a square, fronted by more houses and, along one end, a Chantry. In the center of the open square were merchant stalls, run mostly by humans.

"Here we are." Alistair swept his arm to the side, encompassing the whole area in a single swoop. "Merchants, the Chantry, and just about every money-making opportunity you could think of, legal and otherwise." He raised an eyebrow. "And money is something we need, unless one of you has a secret stash I don't know about. We should check the Chanter's Board, at least."

"Good idea." Sera smiled up at Alistair, and he grinned back. "Why don't you go see what the Chantry has to offer? Natia, you and Leliana snoop around for news and work while Morrigan and I head for the merchants. Meet back at the tavern in an hour." Natia nodded and waved Leliana onward, the mabari bounding off at their heels.

"Well. Where to?" Morrigan looked around.

Sera started toward the center of the market. "Our first stop should be a good weapons supplier. Dwarven make would be best. Most of what I've seen pass for smithing on the surface has been a disgrace."

"Understood." Morrigan fell into step beside her as they wandered through the crowds -- which parted easily enough, suspicious eyes flicking over to the apostate; she glared back, and they stepped out of the way. Then Morrigan stopped, and motioned her to her right. "Ah, a dwarf merchant. By the side of that building."

"Excellent. We should..." Sera stopped dead, her breath frozen in her throat, as she saw the face of the dwarf standing in front of the stall. Then she broke into a run, heedless of the people she pushed aside, of Morrigan's confused shout. "Gorim? Gorim!"

He turned and saw her, all the blood draining from his face as his jaw dropped open. "My... lady?"

She skidded to a stop in front of him, heart pounded from exertion and joy. "Yes, Gorim, love, it's me, I found the Wardens and now I've found you, just like I promised." She could feel the smile cracking her cheeks, the tears pricking at the back of her eyes. "And you, you made it out!" Alive and whole -- so why did he look so sad?

"I did. But..." Gorim turned his eyes to the ground. "I was injured. Badly. My foot -- I could barely walk, and I had to bribe a merchant to take me most of the way to Denerim in a cart. And once here, I..." He shuffled, glanced at the sky. "Oh ancestors, how do I say this. My lady, I-- I met someone."

A chill started at the base of Sera's spine, a tiny shiver. He couldn't be saying what it sounded like he was saying. She shook her head; she would make him start again, so she could understand. "What?"

"I met someone." Finally he lowered his chin to meet her gaze, his brown eyes bleak and weary. "The daughter of a surface trader. She nursed me back to health and I-- I'm sorry, my lady. She was kind, and I thought you dead and gone. We-- we married, and we have a child on the way."

The icy cold crept up her spine and outward into her fingers, down to her toes, a tingling numbness spreading throughout her entire body. "No," she whispered. "This-- how can this be true? You promised, Gorim. You promised!"

She could see his throat bob with a hard swallow. "I'm sorry I didn't believe you would make it. I should have known better. But I couldn't wait forever. I'm sorry."

Forever? A few months, and he called it forever? Sera took a deep, sharp breath through her nose, shifting her shoulders up. "I'm sorry, too," she replied, the ice in her veins coming out in her voice. She whirled on her heels, the armor of the haughty princess falling around her like a barrier, ready to quit him and this place.

"My lady, wait!" Sera didn't want to stop, she wanted to continue her exit with dignity, but her feet stopped, bound to obey the voice of the man she still loved in spite of it all. "I-- have news. Of the king. Your father."

They were probably the only words that would have made her turn around. The ice thawed, just a little, and Sera turned back. "Father?"

Gorim nodded. "He gave me a letter, and a package. In the hopes that it might reach you, if you survived. Let me get it." He disappeared into his stall; by the time he emerged, Morrigan had finally reached her side. She looked down at Sera with a quizzical eye, but Sera waved her into silence. Gorim handed her a wrapped parcel about the size and weight of a shield. "I'm afraid King Endrin fell ill almost immediately after your exile. A broken heart, they say. If he does not recover..."

"Then Bhelen will be king." She spoke the words flatly, once again frozen. "And I can do nothing to stop it."

Gorim lowered his eyes again. "I'm sor--"

She cut him off with a chop of her hand. "Sod it, stop apologizing! What's done is done. Nothing you can say will change it. And I am done here. Farewell."

"Farewell, my lady." She turned again, grasping the package and holding it to her chest, as if it were Gorim, her father, holding them both for one last time, and she stumbled blindly through the crowd and toward the tavern. Once there, she would drink, and maybe she would forget.

-x-

Orzammar.

Natia finished pitching her tent, then sat down on the floor, leaning her back against Dog -- when he'd first found her, just outside of Lothering, she didn't realize that companion animals usually got proper names, and by the time she realized her mistake, she was so used to calling him Dog that she couldn't imagine changing it. She settled against his solid flank, put her hands behind her head, and thought.

She had long known, certainly since they'd planned out their journey in Lothering, that at some point they would have to return to Orzammar. Dark, dirty, oppressive Orzammar. Once, it had been her whole world; now she would rather pretend that it never existed. Surely a far cry from the surface cities she had seen. Like Denerim.

Now Denerim -- that was an exciting place. Her first day there had been a productive one: by casually poking in corners and chatting with bystanders, she and Leliana gotten leads on a number of jobs. Some of them were less savory than others, but Natia figured that was why Sera had given her the task of seeking them out. For an outcast on multiple fronts, Sera was remarkably unwilling to get her hands dirty. Fortunately, Leliana had no such scruples. She might have been a Chantry sister, but she was quick and clever, and better at picking a lock than Natia herself. There was a story there; Natia hoped to hear it all eventually.

"Lovely," Leliana said, her eyes glowing with appreciation and more than a touch of avarice as she looked over the rubies and emeralds that Natia had lifted from the noble girl's purse. "I have not seen such fine baubles since leaving Orlais."

"They're shiny, all right." Natia opened the pouch, and Leliana slid the gemstones back inside; Natia pulled the drawstring shut and tossed it in the air before putting it back in her own pocket. "I doubt Bodahn will want to touch them, though, and I don't know any trustworthy fences in this town; do you?" Leliana shook her head. "Maybe Slim knows someone. Is it time to head for the tavern yet?"

Leliana checked the angle of the sun in the sky and shook her head. Natia felt a stab of envy -- over a month on the surface, and she still hadn't the slightest sense of how to tell time. "We have at least an hour. Shall we keep exploring, then?"

"Sure." Natia took a step back against the wall and looked around, considered the mental map she was already building of the city. "The Alienage is over there; we can't get in, and I don't know that we'd want to anyway. That way is the Chantry, and Slim, and that guy from the mages; we've already talked to all of them. That just leaves the area around the tavern. Might be shops back there, or people we can talk to-- oh, and there's Alistair." She whistled, and he trotted toward them. "How'd it go?"

"Pretty well, there are some good leads for work on the Chanter's Board." He glanced around, leaned down, lowered his voice. "Also information on some of Loghain's troop movements. A little sloppy, if you ask me."

Natia grinned. "We'll just have to take advantage of that, then. What else?"

Alistair shrugged. "Not much. Just walking around, listening to gossip." He sent an uneasy glance toward a bank of houses in the middle of the square. "Uh, there's an armory over there. I was going to take Sera there, once we had some money. And then there's a shop I remember down that alley. They might have some useful things for sale."

"Sounds fun. We should check that out." Natia started out from the eaves, then paused in front of the next doorway. A name was carved in the lintel, a pattern of letters that struck her as very familiar. "That... why do I know that word?" She leaned closer and sounded it out. "Ge-ni-tivi."

"It's from the letter. The one we got from Ser Donall in Lothering." Alistair stepped back. "He's the one who might know about the Sacred Ashes."

"Oh, right!" Natia rapped her knuckles against the door. After a moment, the door opened, and a young man with dark hair and a fearful expression appeared, looking first on empty air, then down.

"He-hello?"

"Hello," Natia replied with a cheery smile that she hoped was disarming. "May we see Brother Genitivi please?"

The man looked at Natia for a moment, then up at Leliana and Alistair, frowning. "He's not here. Please come back later."

"We're travelers and won't be in town long." Natia kept her smile friendly, but she casually slid her foot between the door and the frame. "We're looking for Andraste's Sacred Ashes. Perhaps you can help us?"

His brows shot up with alarm. "Hush! Not so loud." He looked around the group again; maybe he was counting weapons. Finally he stepped back and pulled the door open. "All right. But only inside. I won't speak of it in the open."

Natia spread her empty hands wide. "Never fear, we just want to talk." They all filed inside, and the man stopped them in front of a table, gathering them close around.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to come off so poorly out there." He glanced around the group. "My name is Weylon. I'm Brother Genitivi's assistant, but I haven't heard from him in week. I'm afraid something may have happened, that his work has led him into danger."

"Danger?" Natia raised her eyebrows. "Why would looking for the ashes be dangerous?"

Weylon shook his head. "The Urn has been lost for so long. It must be for a reason. I pray for Brother Genitivi's safety, but my hope dwindles with each passing day." He shifted over his feet and glanced back over his shoulder. "I even tried to send help -- some knights came by looking for the Brother, and I sent them after him, but they, too, have disappeared."

Just like Ser Donall had said. Natia was about to confirm Weylon's statement, but then she stopped. Seemed odd for him to be so confident of something that happened so far away. "How do you know they disappeared?" she asked.

He started. "Well, uh... they... haven't returned. And they sent no word, either."

"Good friends of yours, these knights?" Natia forced a friendly chuckle. "Why would they have sent word to you?"

"I, uh, I don't know." Weylon shifted his weight again, a bit of sweat breaking out on his brow. "Well, um, after what happened to Brother Genitivi, can you blame me for assuming the same thing could happen to the knights?" He lifted a hand in a shrug. "But then, I tend to be a pessimist. I hope I am wrong."

Reasonable enough, but Waylon had spoken with confidence earlier and now he looked worried, eyes darting quickly around the room, most often to the closed door behind him. So Natia pressed further. "Where did they go?

"No, don't ask me that!" Weylon held up both hands as if to stop her from coming any closer. "You might go after them, and what if something happened to you, too? Then I'd have your ill luck on my conscience as well." He dropped his hands and shook his head with exaggerated sorrow. "This search is a curse. Some things are never meant to be found. I know that now."

Natia shrugged, then glanced over her shoulder at her companions; Alistair nodded, and Leliana's smile was eager. "I'm willing to take the risk. Just tell me."

Weylon sighed, a heavy sound that seemed to roll off his shoulders. "So be it." He looked up with an expression of resignation. "He said he was going to an inn at Lake Calenhad, investigating something in that area."

"Hmm." Natia tapped her foot. "Do you know what he was investigating?"

"No." A trace of impatience crept into Weylon's tone. "All I found while going through his research is that he was staying at the inn."

Natia raised an eyebrow. "But you just said he told you where he was going."

Weylon touched the side of his nose. "Y-yes, of course he told me. I... was... going through his things to see if I could find out anything more."

"And you didn't find anything." She leaned back and crossed her arms.

"No, I didn't." Weylon waved his hands again; his over-acting was starting to get on Natia's nerves. This man was one of the worst liars she'd ever seen. "Everything pointed to the same place." He crossed his arms and fixed her with a glare. "Look, if you're going after Brother Genitivi and the Urn, you should go as soon as possible. This is a waste of time."

"I thought you didn't want anyone going after him, or the Urn."

"I meant-- Well, you seem so determined to go." Weylon took a step backward, sliding around the table in the center of the room and taking yet another look over his shoulder. "And if Brother Genitivi needs help, you should get to him sooner rather than later."

"Or," Natia said, moving closer to him, "you just don't want me hanging around here, asking any more questions."

Weylon blanched. "I've told you all I know! I'm-- just an assistant, I'm not... I just follow instructions."

Natia glanced at Alistair again. Pressing Weylon further wasn't going to get anywhere; time to try another tactic. "You seem nervous, that's all. Like something is bothering you. Is everything all right?"

"I-- ah." Weylon let out another sigh, as if of relief. "My apologies. It's been a difficult time. I'm just so worried about Brother Genitivi, it's hard to know what to think or feel. I want him to be rescued, but I don't want anyone else to be hurt. You understand, don't you?"

"Of course." Natia smiled at him, more gently this time.

"Good." Weylon forced a tentative smile as well. "Please, if you do go after Brother Genitivi, then be careful."

Natia grinned. "We're always careful. Right?"

"Right," Alistair said, with more than a tinge of sarcasm. "Thanks for your help."

"Happy to provide the information." Weylon almost had his back up against the door now, his hands restless at his sides. That settled it: Natia had to get into that room. She reached for a book on the table and thumbed through it; she only recognized about one word in ten, but she closed it with a knowing nod regardless. She moved toward the door, quick enough to get around him, and he turned to look at her. "What are you doing?"

"Just looking around," she said with a shrug, innocence personified.

"Well, please don't." He was striving to sound irritated, but Natia knew fear when she heard it. "Brother Genitivi is a very private person, and he wouldn't want a stranger going through his things."

"Even a stranger who shares his desire to find the Sacred Ashes?" Natia tipped her head sideways, then smiled, a darker grin than before. "All right, let's both cut the act. You're hiding something, and I want to know what it is."

"No!" Weylon pulled a knife out of his tunic and charged her with a howl; Natia drew her blades and parried his first thrust, then whirled inside his reach to rest the flat of her sword against his neck. Instead of surrendering, he jabbed at her again. She knocked the knife out of his hand and whipped the handle of her dagger against the side of his head. With a groan, he crumpled to the floor.

Natia shook her head. "Not much of a fighter, is he?" She put her blades away and turned toward the door. "Now, let's see what he was hiding."

"The haven must be preserved!" She barely had time to turn before Weylon was on her again, his hands around her neck, eyes wide and frenzied. He tried to lift her in the air, and Natia kicked out, landing a heel against his knee, which buckled. He started to fall, and then he went down entirely with a gurgling sound, an arrow sticking out of his chest.

Natia rubbed her throat and coughed a few times before looking up at Leliana. "Thanks."

"Of course," Leliana replied, lowering her bow. "Though I wish we hadn't needed to kill him."

"Same here." Natia nudged the corpse with her toe. "But he was determined not to let us in that room. Which just makes me even more curious."

"Naturally." Alistair came up next to her. "You're all right?"

Natia waved him off with a smile. "I took worse than that before I was seven. C'mon, let's get this door open." To her surprise, it was unlocked, and she found herself in a small library: bookshelves on the wall, a table under the window -- and a dead body in the corner.

"Well, now we know what he was hiding." Alistair wrinkled his nose. "He couldn't have hidden it much longer."

"Bet you a sovereign that's Genitivi's real assistant." Natia knelt down to examine the body. "Poor fellow," she murmured. "From the look of that wound, he never knew what hit him."

Alistair looked around more closely. "So I'd suspect that Lake Calenhad is a trap, given how badly the impostor wanted us to go there. But then where do we go?"

Natia pulled out a letter from the dead man's pocket and made an attempted to read it, but the handwriting was spindly, and too many of the words were ones she didn't know. "Maybe this will tell us."

"Good thinking." Alistair smiled down at her, then took the letter, brow furrowing as he read. "Haven? Never heard of the place."

"I have," said Leliana. "It is in the mountains, east of Redcliffe."

"A place to start, at least." Alistair folded up the note and handed it to Natia, who secured it in her pack with the rest of her treasures from the day. It had been a productive afternoon, for sure; she only hoped that Sera had been half as lucky as the rest of them.

-x-

But she had not been, as it turned out; Natia and the others had found Sera in the corner of the tavern, nursing a glass of whiskey, with a silent Morrigan across the table. No leads on Loghain, no new equipment except a shield, and nothing to show for the afternoon except a hangover. They took rooms at the inn and spent the next day at the shops, exploring the city, and finishing off some of the easier jobs they'd taken. They plotted their next move over dinner and decided to head to Redcliffe, so all in all it was a productive trip, but Natia was never fully satisfied with the decision to wait so long on following the lead to Haven. Even now, months later, making camp on the way to Orzammar. And she had to ask herself: did she really think that going to Haven first was the better plan? Or was she simply avoiding the return to Orzammar?

She sighed and pulled the blanket over her head. Whether she wanted to go or not, they were going. Might as well make the best of it. And try to get a good night's sleep first.

Chapter Text

The storm hit about three hours into the fourth day of their journey to the Frostback Mountains. And though it wasn't snow, it was still cold: icy raindrops slapped Natia in the face and arms and plastered her hair down to the sides of her head while the paths turned into stiff mud, making each step a struggle. The third time she slipped, she whacked her elbow against the cliff wall. The sharp, tingling pain shot up her arm, and she gasped as she lost balance completely and landed hard on her ass. The ground was cold, freezing water creeping beneath her leathers to wet her smalls through, but even so it seemed better to sit than to keep struggling through this storm. Where was Dog? She peered through the driving rain to no avail. How had she gotten so far separated from everyone?

"Hey, here!" She felt a heavy hand on her shoulder and twisted her head around and up to see Alistair, brows knitted together. "You all right?"

"Yeah, I just slipped. I'll be fine in a minute."

"Here." He pulled off a gauntlet and held out a bare hand. Natia took it and let him haul her to her feet. His fingers were so warm, the heat spreading from his palm to her whole body, and she found she was shivering just a little bit less. "We haven't found a campsite yet, so we have to press on, but get behind me; maybe that will help."

Natia looked him over; he was soaked, rivulets of water running down his face, although at least his helm kept his hair dry. She supposed being in front wouldn't make it any worse. "All right," she said, and she fell into step behind him. Within moments, she felt better -- still wet and chilled through, but fewer stinging droplets hit her in the face, and Alistair's bulk cut the worst of the wind. Together they slogged forward, one step at a time.

"Better?" he called back over his shoulder as they crested a hill and started downward.

"Yeah, thanks. I-- whoa!" Her foot caught a loose stone; she scrambled for purchase in the mud, but it was too late -- she was falling forward. She flung her arms outward and caught Alistair around the waist, twisting away just in time to keep from smashing her face against his shield. Momentum carried her forward, and between that and gravity, Alistair's feet slipped beneath him as well, and they turned sideways as they fell together, hitting the muddy path with a loud squelching sound. Natia landed half-atop Alistair, her forehead thumping into his chest on the way down, her arms still wrapped around his waist.

"Ooof!" Alistair let his head fall back against the ground. "You're heavier than you look."

Natia glanced up to his face; his eyes were closed against the rain, but he was smiling. "Sorry," she said, a sheepish smile creeping up her cheeks. "I tripped on a rock, I think. Some way of repaying you for your help."

Alistair sat up, bringing Natia up with him. She found herself reluctant to let go, to pull away from the warm shelter of his broad chest. He wiped a streak of mud off his forehead and grinned again. "Never fear, I've dealt with worse mud than this. We can't stay out in the storm much longer, though. Hopefully the others have found shelter -- let's try to catch up." He helped her up again, and they picked their way down the path. Natia stayed huddled behind Alistair, choosing each step with care, not falling exactly into his footprints but using them as a rough guideline, and together they made their way to the mouth of a cave. Alistair stopped and held out his arm; Natia froze in her steps behind him and waited while he peered around the corner.

"They're here," he said, shoulders slumping in relief. He ushered Natia into the entrance of the cave, where she was almost knocked over again by Dog, bounding into her and licking her face.

"Down, boy, down." Natia pushed him away, but she laughed, too. At least he couldn't make her any wetter. She followed him to the campfire that was already burning away in a dry spot near the center, the others gathered around it. Leliana shuffled to the side, making room for all three of them. Natia peeled off her gloves and then reached for the buckles on her armor, but she could barely feel her fingers, much less undo the wet leather straps. "Ugh, come on, get out of there."

"Here, let me." Alistair leaned over and pushed each strap through its buckle, loosening them enough that she could pull them free. The chest plate came off, and Natia sighed with relief, leaning closer to the fire, stretching her hands to its warmth, taking comfort from that and Alistair's solid bulk as he settled in beside her.

-x-

The worst of the storm passed overnight, but it still took most of the day for the party to finish their trek down and over the other side of the mountain over the muddy paths, including finding a route around a washed out segment for Bodahn's wagon. Still, not as bad as it could have been -- no darkspawn, very few wild animals, and only one small band of bounty hunters that they had dispatched easily -- and as they walked over the stone bridge that lead into an open-air market, Sera felt vindicated. "Bad as that was, I imagine snow would have been a thousand times worse," she said, and next to her Morrigan nodded.

"I would not wish to try it. Let us hope your errand does not keep us here long."

"I can't imagine they would deny me." Sera glanced back over her shoulder at Natia, who had not allowed Dog to budge from her side today, and had much less trouble passing through the mud as a result. Warden or not, they would still see her as a casteless within the city walls. Perhaps if Sera did most of the talking... "At least, not if my father is still alive." A tricky question, that; Gorim had not seemed hopeful, but Sera had been unable to let go of the belief that her father might have recovered, once the initial shock was past. If Bhelen were king... she shook her head, as if to toss the thought away. Lord Harrowmont had sworn to keep her treacherous brother from coming to the throne, and she trusted him to keep his word. She carried the Shield of Aeducan in Bodahn's wagon, her father's pardon in the bottom of her pack. Surely that counted for something. "I may be an exile, but I was once the most beloved child of my house. They will remember me, and obey."

Morrigan raised her eyebrow, and a dark smile spread up one half of her mouth. "Is that an 'or else' I hear?"

Sera looked back up at her friend and allowed herself a small smile back. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that."

"Of course," Morrigan replied with a light laugh. "Of course."

-x-

Natia was not feeling nearly so confident; her steps were slow and deliberate, and the heaviness of her boots had little to do with the mud that caked them. They had no choice but to come to Orzammar; she understood that, and a part of her was eager to check in on Rica and Leske. She paused at the top of the bridge, not moving until she felt a soft nudging against her hand: Dog. Her fingers touched the mabari's sleek head, stroking him between the ears, and then she laid her palm on his side, warm and solid. "You'll bite anyone who tries to stop me, won't you, boy?"

"He's not the only one." Alistair came up next to her and crossed his arms. "You're a Grey Warden; anyone who treats you as anything lesser will answer to me. You and Sera both."

"I appreciate it," Natia said. She tightened her grip on Dog's fur with a sigh. "But it's not as easy as that. Orzammar's pretty wrapped up in its traditions and prejudices. Sera's an exile, I'm casteless, and we're both surface dwarves now. My people respect the Grey Wardens, but that's not what they'll see when they look at me. They'll see... this." Her hand covered the brand on her cheek, as though to shield it from view. "Where the casteless are concerned, it's swords first and, maybe, questions later. If you're lucky." She glanced around the merchants, dwarves and humans alike, who had set up in a ring around the clearing. "And I didn't make many friends when I killed Beraht. Who knows what kind of hit the Carta has put out on me?"

Alistair frowned. "Would they really do that?" He cast a suspicious eye on the nearest merchant stall. "Well, they'd have to come through me. More importantly, they'd have to come through you." He grinned, a light coming into his eyes that almost looked like pride. "I've never seen anyone as fast with the blades as you are."

Natia felt the beginnings of a blush creeping up her cheeks. "Really? But all the Templars, and the Wardens. You have to have known some really strong fighters."

"I suppose, but..." Alistair shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, let's just say I'd lay my money on you, against almost any of them."

"Thanks." She met his eyes, and he looked back at her with a warm smile, warm enough that she felt the blush spreading further down, bringing back the memory of his warm arms in the cave, the rose he had given her, the look in his eyes then matching his expression now... "Well, uh." She had to look away, focusing on her feet, biting her lips to keep from smiling too hard. "Let's, um, get going, okay?"

"Right!" Alistair tore his eyes away and looking resolutely forward. "Orzammar. Kings, and treaties, and... things. Lots to do, time's a wasting. Lead the way."

-x-

They approached the doors of the city, and Sera looked up, and up, and up: the doors were hewn from the side of a mountain and appeared almost to be at one with it, as old and heavy as the rock itself, the impression only increased by the wide brass bands that covered them. As she approached, she could hear heated words, echoing in the large doorway area -- it seemed to be an exchange between the guard and a human emissary trying to gain entrance. She started up the steps, then heard a soft noise behind her. "What is it?"

Natia had a hand on her elbow, and she tugged Sera back softly, stepped up to murmur in Sera's ear. "We should listen a moment, see what he wants. I think he's come from Loghain; maybe we could get some useful information about the situation in Denerim as well as here."

Sera looked at Natia, then back up the stairs to the guard, frowning into his black beard as he argued with the human, a skinny rat-faced sort wearing Loghain's heraldry and a deep scowl. "He won't gain entrance; humans almost never do. And I want this finished." She turned her back on Natia and marched up the stairs and into the conversation.

"...And you will give me entrance today, or King Loghain will hear about it!" the man proclaimed, striking the ground with his foot for emphasis.

"And like I told you already, I don't care who you work for," the guard barked back. "The Assembly is closed to outsiders until they choose a king. Now go away." He turned to look at Sera. "And you, too. We have closed the city to all outsiders, dwarves and-- otherwise," he added, looking over the motley crew that followed her. "You'll have to come back later."

Sera focused on the guard, all other thoughts chased from her mind. "Choosing a king, you say? So King Endrin..."

"Is dead," the guard said, finishing the sentence with the words she had been dreading all day; a few steps behind her, Sera heard Natia take a sharp breath, then some sympathetic murmurs from someone further away. "Fell ill some months ago, died three weeks past. Of a broken heart, some say." He had the grace to lower his eyes. "I do know who you are. And I'm sorry you have to hear it from me, like this. Though perhaps this news will give you cause to regret your part in the affair."

"I already do," Sera murmured through the tightness of her throat, the weight on her heart almost beyond bearing. "Believe me." She shook her head, took a few deep breaths, pushed the tears into the back of her throat. There would be time to grieve later; for now, she had a mission to accomplish. "But that changes nothing. I am not here as King Endrin's exiled daughter. I am a Grey Warden, and I need to meet with the dwarven leaders under the terms of this treaty." She extracted the document from her pouch and held it out to the guard, who took it and began to read.

"Papers!" Next to her, the human emissary snorted. "I can wave around papers, too." He rattled the sheet gripped in his hand. "This declaration of war if I do not gain my audience, for example."

"Oh, give me a break." The guard looked up at him with an expression that was half irritation, half astonishment. "You Fereldans are too busy fighting each other to attack Orzammar, as if your armies could even get past the gates if you tried. Now get out, before I throw you out!" He pulled out his axe and brandished it over his head; the other guards drew their own weapons, and the emissary finally backed away, hands in the air.

"You haven't heard the last of us," he hissed, and then he turned on his heel and marched down the steps, his retinue behind him.

The guard shook his head and spat on the ground as he hooked the axe back to his belt. "Stone-cursed surfacers. Feh!" Then he turned his attention to Sera. "Fine. You're right, at least as far as the treaties are concerned -- I have to let you and the other Grey Wardens in. But I still say you should come back later. It's dangerous in there, Warden -- the Assembly argues about who to make king while people fight in the streets, and the gangs take advantage of the chaos to stir up more trouble. You'd be best off waiting until a king is chosen."

Sera frowned. "So Prince Bhelen is not king?"

The guard waved a hand of exasperation on the air. "Politics. Long story, not worth my time to tell it. I'm sure there will be fifty people inside eager to share their own versions. Good luck, my lady. You're going to need it." He motioned toward the guard closest to the gate to pull it open, and without another word Sera went inside, back home in Orzammar at last.

-x-

The door slammed shut behind them; Natia wanted to wince, but she didn't. Instead, she held her head up and walked into the Hall of the Paragons as if she belonged there, trying to look like a native rather than a tourist, hoping no one saw how she wound her hand around Dog's collar. The guard had narrowed his eyes at her, but he hadn't questioned her presence in the party. Luck, which she did not expect to hold.

"What's that?" Alistair asked, pointed to a statue at the edge of the hall -- it was one of several dozen, lined up along the walls.

Natia shrugged. "A paragon. I don't know which one." Alistair raised an eyebrow in surprise, and she shrugged again. "I didn't get in here very often. Just one of the many places where a casteless's steps would 'pollute the stone.' Lots of Orzammar is off-limits to dusters."

Alistair shook his head. "And I thought being a bastard put me on the outside," he muttered, almost under his breath.

Natia took some careful steps forward and went down the stairs and into the center of the room. Nothing exploded; the stone didn't melt from the pollution of her touch, and she had to smile. If only Leske could see her now.

Well, maybe he soon would. Her smile faded as she wondered about Leske, not for the first time. He had never been more than a friend to her, sometimes a good friend, sometimes an irritation, but the way he refused to look at her as she'd left with Duncan haunted her, as did the tremble in his voice when he'd said goodbye. Had she misjudged his feelings? And did it matter anymore? She sneaked a look back up over her shoulder at Alistair, who was staring at the rock ceiling and the carved walls, eyes round with awe. "Maybe not," she murmured.

"The Paragon Branka." Sera came up next to Natia and nodded at the sculpture, a woman carrying a smith's hammer. "The only Paragon still living, maybe -- she left on an expedition to the Deep Roads some years back. Packed up her whole house and marched out. I remember when the Assembly voted to name her. I was just a girl, but Father made sure I was there for the entire proceedings. He said..." Her voice got very small and soft, then trailed off. "He said I might never see such a sight again. And he was right." She turned away, jaw clenched tightly, and Natia felt a brief stab of sympathy. This homecoming couldn't be easy for Sera, either. She only hoped they would both survive.

-x-

"Blood does not determine the taking of the throne! Only the Assembly can do that." A middle-aged dwarf with a gray beard and an imperious expression stood in the center of a gathering of nobles and guards. "And King Endrin himself disinherited Prince Bhelen before naming me as his choice for the throne. His wishes must be respected."

"Pah!" The man across from him, a younger fellow with blond hair and beard, who would be almost handsome but for his narrow, almost beady eyes, spat on the ground. "A conversation no one heard but you. Lies and trickery! Just what you'd expect to hear from the usurper Harrowmont."

"That's Prince Bhelen?" Natia looked at Sera, eyebrows raised in surprise? "Your bro--"

Sera jerked her head toward her with a forbidding expression. "Not now!" she hissed. "I need to hear."

Natia stepped back and crossed her arms. "Sounds like a bunch of nobles posturing and flinging their beards around to me," she muttered. Why did it even matter? But she fell silent anyway, trying to pay attention to the argument, which seemed to come down whether the prince of the blood or another nobleman, this Harrowmont, would make a better king.

"All right, that's enough!" A guard pushed forward through the crowds and glared at Harrowmont, then Bhelen. "Take it to the Assembly where it belongs. Out, all of you rabble! Or I'll have you all thrown in jail, I don't care who your fathers are."

Another young dwarf pulled an axe from his belt and waved it in the air. "How dare you speak that way to Prince Bhelen, the man who should be king!" He lunged at the guard, who leapt back; another guardsman got in the way and took the axe swing straight in his gut. The blow knocked him down, and his assailant landed on top of him, whacking him again.

As if it were a signal, the Harrowmont partisans scattered, while Bhelen took a moment to pull his supporter off his victim before leading his people off in the other direction. Only the guard who'd called for order and the corpse remained; the living guard examined the body a moment before he rose, shaking his head. "No better than common thugs," he grumbled. "If I had my way, it'd be the Legion for the lot of them." He looked up, and his glare lessened not a bit. "I hate fighting in the Commons. Especially in front of outsiders. What are you even doing here?"

Sera unfroze and stepped forward, nodding her head in greeting. "We are Grey Wardens, here to address the Assembly on a matter of the utmost importance."

The guard snorted. "Good luck getting them to listen. They've been wrapped up in this king business ever since Endrin died. And for what? Bhelen, Harrowmont? There's no paragons here. One's as good as the other, or as bad. Just pick one and be done with it, and then maybe we'll have some peace."

"I beg to differ," Sera murmured. Natia supposed she would, given that her brother was the rightful heir to the throne. "What can you tell me of the political situation?"

"Not much." The guard shrugged. "The younger deshyrs seem to be mostly supporting Bhelen, while the older and more traditional houses support Harrowmont. The Assembly's been deadlocked for weeks, and every attempt either man makes to win more supporters just leads to more trouble for me." He took a closer look at Sera and narrowed his eyes. "Hey, hold on a minute. You aren't supposed to be here. I thought you were exiled."

Sera lifted her chin. "I am a Grey Warden. I may travel wherever Grey Warden business takes me. Or has the policy of the dwarves toward Grey Wardens changed since I've been gone?"

"No, but neither has the policy toward exiles. Or brands." And he turned to Natia with such a hateful glare that she wanted to shrink back, conditioned as she was to avoid guards, to fear the punishment of a prison cell or a beating. Her feet wanted to make the left turn into Dust Town, running all the way.

But she didn't; instead she took a deep breath and pulled herself up to look him straight in the eye. "I'm a Grey Warden, too," she said. "Your rules no longer apply to me."

"That's right," Sera said, crossing her arms. "Where she goes, I go."

The guard threw up his hands. "Fine. Just don't make trouble. If you do, I'll have you out of here and in the Deep Roads faster than you can spit. You got it?"

"Perfectly clear." Sera nodded to him, then to Natia. "I suppose--"

"Natia!" The cry came from the right, and Natia turned, a huge smile spreading onto her face at the sound of her sister's voice. Rica raced up the steps, dressed in a fine gown. "Is it really you?"

"It's me," Natia said, and then Rica enveloped her in a hug. She closed her eyes and hugged her sister back, leaning cheek to cheek. "How did you know I was here?"

"I didn't." Rica backed off but kept her hands resting on Natia's shoulders, eyes shining. "I was just out to do some shopping, and I saw you from a distance. How are you?"

"I'm good. It's good, being a Grey Warden. Although it's been hard, too." Natia felt her face clouding as she thought of Duncan, the other Wardens, the disasters at Ostagar and Lothering and Redcliffe. "I've... seen things. Done things. Terrible and frightening things. And I'm sure there will be more, before the Blight's over." She sighed and shook her head. "I'm sorry, I'm not here to bring you down. Tell me about you!"

"Well, you remember my patron, the one who asked me to live with him?" Rica smiled, a softer, almost wistful smile. "He moved Mother and me into the palace, and our son was born two weeks ago."

Natia gasped. "Your son? You had a boy? That's wonderful!" She embraced her sister again. "So you're a noble now?"

"The mother of a noble, anyway." Rica smiled. "He's named Endrin. For his grandfather. Bhelen dotes on him."

"Wait." Natia's brow furrowed. "Bhelen? Your patron is Prince Bhelen?"

Rica nodded, her smile softening. "He's such a good man, such a good father. And he'll make an even better king, once the Assembly sees reason and names him to the position. He says he'll even marry me, once he's on the throne!" She sighed. "Isn't that wonderful?"

"I... guess," Natia replied, faintly. This was a lot to take in. "But Rica, I just saw Bhelen, fighting with a bunch of people. Isn't it dangerous?"

"It's worth it," Rica said. "I do love Bhelen, but that's not why I support him for king. He sees reason. He wants to loosen the caste system, rethink the way we do things around here. He thinks casteless should be able to work, buy and sell in the markets, even serve in the army!"

"Huh." Natia tried to reconcile that progressive notion with the thug who'd just let one of his supporters murder a city guard. "If you say so."

"You should come by and meet him if you have time." Rica took Natia's hands in hers and squeezed. "You'll see."

Natia smiled at her sister. "I'd like that. I don't know what our schedule is like, but I'll come by the palace if I can." She giggled. "I can't believe you really live in the palace!"

Rica chuckled. "I can't always believe it either." She hugged Natia quickly, then drew away. "I'll see you soon."

-x-

Just as Natia had gone to see her sister, Sera's eye caught another woman standing at the edge of the courtyard, watching with interest. She took a closer look, then smiled. "Nerav!"

"My lady." Nerav Helmi smiled back, warm with genuine pleasure. "It's wonderful to see you again, alive and well. When you were exiled, we all thought the worst."

Sera held out her hands, and Nerav clasped them. "I was fortunate to find the Grey Wardens in the Deep Roads. Sadly, not many remain, but I am the leader of those who do."

"You'll have to tell me all your stories later," Nerav said, the twinkle in her eye fading. "You see that, for the moment, Orzammar is in a shambles."

"Is it true?" Sera leaned closer and lowered her voice. "Did my father truly name Lord Harrowmont as his successor?"

Nerav nodded. "Or so his servants say. Those who haven't been bought by Bhelen, anyway." She lowered her eyes. "I'm so sorry about King Endrin. He died of a broken heart, they say, from the twin losses of you and Trian. And there are rumors that Bhelen had an even more direct hand in hastening your father's return to the Stone."

Sera clenched her jaw. "He wouldn't dare!"

"Wouldn't he?" Nerav raised an eyebrow. "If what Harrowmont says is true, Bhelen arranged for Trian's murder and blamed it on you, all but assuring your death, too. Why wouldn't that lack of scruples extend to your father?"

When put that way, it seemed all too plausible. "Harrowmont speaks the truth, but I am reluctant to accuse Bhelen without proof. And say what you will about my treacherous brother: he's much too canny to have murdered our father and left any proof behind."

"True enough." Nerav sighed. "I only hope the Assembly sees reason and names Harrowmont to the throne sooner rather than later. He's a good man, the stable presence that Orzammar needs."

"I couldn't agree more," Sera said. "And I will offer him my support at the earliest opportunity."

"Ancestors grant that is enough." Nerav bowed to Sera. "I have to go; find me before you leave, and we can catch up on more personal matters. Thank you, my friend." She smiled again with another bow, then disappeared into the busy markets; Sera watched her go, and then returned to the others, including Natia, who had gathered at the base of the bridge to the proving grounds. She motioned that they should all come closer to her, huddling together beneath the arch, out of earshot to the guard and any other passersby.

"So." Sera looked around the group. "We have an opportunity."

"No king, and therefore no one to ask for aid?" Alistair shook his head in frustration. "That must be some dwarven definition of 'opportunity' they didn't teach me in the Chantry."

"No, don't you see? There must be a king, otherwise Orzammar will descend into chaos. But we can make certain that a king favorable to our cause is named, one who will honor the treaties. The Grey Wardens command great respect among our people, a respect that I-- that we can use to our advantage."

Morrigan let out a heavy sigh. "Is there no one in this blasted land who can solve their own problems without our aid?" Natia chuckled at that; normally, Sera would have sympathized, but she felt hope rising for the first time in many months. "Very well, then what do we have to do?"

"We will speak to Lord Harrowmont as soon as possible," said Sera. "I'm sure he'll see me if we go to his man in the Assembly. From there, we--"

"Harrowmont?" Natia looked up with a frown. "Why Lord Harrowmont?"

"Because my father named him heir, of course." Sera looked at her with an air of surprise. "He might not have been my first choice, but his is an old and respected family, and he was one of Father's closest friends and advisors."

"But there's an heir already." Natia glanced up at the walls that blocked the Diamond District from view. "Prince Bhelen. I'll admit to not knowing a whole lot about politics, but I always thought that the king's son would take precedent over a named heir."

"Bhelen?" Sera did not bother keeping the icy contempt from her voice. "Bhelen forfeited his chance at the throne when he betrayed me-- my father, my brother, his family. He will never be king."

Natia shrugged. "That's not what my sister seems to think. Sounds to her like he has the whole thing sewn up." She turned to Alistair. "What do you think?"

"I think Grey Wardens aren't supposed to be messing with politics," Alistair replied with a frown. "Neutrality, remember? And there's a reason for that -- or have you already forgotten the history lesson we got at Soldier's Peak?"

Sera waved a hand in the air. "I couldn't call demons if I wanted to. And I don't think we have much choice -- if the Assembly can't decide on a king, how are they going to pull together to supply aid to the Grey Wardens?"

"No, he's right." Natia crossed her arms and stepped forward. "We're Grey Wardens, we stay neutral if we can. We at least need to try."

Sera let out a heavy sigh. "All right. We'll try it. And if it doesn't work, well -- we can talk about that then." Ancestors spare her from political novices. If Sophia Dryden's people had won the rebellion, the Grey Wardens would be lauded as political geniuses. Dryden backed the wrong side, that was all. Sera had no plans to make the same mistake.

-x-

Natia could hear the still hear the shouting through the doors of the Assembly, even after the doors had closed behind them, even though the Speaker had called for a recess. She would have thought nothing would get through metal that thick. It was almost as thick as the deshyrs' heads. Why did it matter so much who was king? No king would be stupid enough to deny the Grey Warden treaties, and the dusters would get screwed either way, no matter what grand ideas Bhelen had for change.

It mattered to Rica, though, and Natia supposed that meant it mattered to her, too. And she couldn't shake the feeling that Bhelen knew it. She thought back to Sera's outburst at the gates, about Bhelen betraying her. If he'd outplayed Sera, he couldn't be stupid. Did Bhelen actually care for Rica and their son? Or were they just pawns in his larger power game? She shook her head -- Bhelen couldn't have predicted that Natia would become a Grey Warden when he'd offered Rica a place in his household. But--

She sighed and let the thought go. For now she just had to hope that they could get the Assembly reconvened to consider their proposal. Anything else was just borrowing trouble. The old speaker stood in front of the doorway, grumbling and shaking his head.

"Stone-forsaken fools and dusters," he muttered. Then he glanced at Natia. "No offense meant. I'm sure you're far more sensible than anyone in that room."

"None taken," Natia replied, amused.

"I'm sorry." The man shook his head again, then looked straight at Sera. "So it's true. The exile has returned, and we are to treat you as an honored guest."

Sera responded with a nod. "I am a Grey Warden now, here on important Warden business."

He smiled. "I'm glad to hear that the surfacers are making use of your talents. Respect for the Wardens is great, but alas, you will receive no proper hearing until we have a king on the throne."

"Beg pardon, ser, but a Blight is coming." Alistair spoke from behind them, and the Speaker looked up at him. "Can't we convince them that it's important enough for them to deal with it first?"

"Troubling, but even that will seem distant compared to the empty throne." He gestured toward the door. "The Assembly is blind to all else. Surely you saw that for yourself. I'm sorry, but there is nothing I can do. Only Prince Bhelen or Lord Harrowmont can break this stalemate."

Sera glanced up at Alistair with an oddly triumphant expression; Natia fought the urge to slap the smug grin off her face. Sera looked back to the Speaker. "Thank you for the information, and best of luck with the Assembly."

"Thank you, child." The Speaker bowed to her. "Or should I say, Warden?" He nodded to Natia as well. "I hope you get the aid you need." He disappeared through a side door, and then Sera was leaving, too, walking briskly through the hall and back into the Diamond Quarter. Natia was about to follow her through the doors, when a voice called her name; she turned to see Rica, standing in an alcove with a dark-haired dwarf, beckoning her over.

"I assume your visit with the Assembly was unfruitful?" Rica asked.

"We didn't even get a chance to talk to them," Natia said. "Just as well, they probably wouldn't have listened anyway."

"Nor will they," the man said, "until this king question is settled, and Bhelen has his rightful place on the throne." He crossed his arms and looked at her. "So, you're Rica's sister. The duster who caused all that trouble in the Proving a few months ago."

"That's right," Natia replied, pleasantly. "And you are?"

Rica stepped aside with a firm wave of her hand. "This is Vartag Gavorn, Bhelen's second. Vartag, this is my sister, Natia, the Grey Warden."

He nodded down at her. "If you're looking for aid against the Blight, you've come to the right place. Bhelen would be happy to help you with the forces you need. Once he's king, anyway."

Natia raised an eyebrow at him. "Once I've helped put him on the throne, you mean."

"Naturally." Vartag shrugged. "At the moment, Bhelen can't even get a simple trade measure passed, much less commit soldiers and arms to a surfacer war. And it would be a shame if he never received his royal birthright. A real shame." He flicked his eyes sideways, toward Rica, then back to Natia, gaze as hard as flint. "You understand."

"I do. I will work to secure-- and protect -- what is mine." Natia stared back at him and hoped her meaning was just as clear. They stared each other down for a long minute, and then Vartag nodded.

"Fine. I have an errand for you to run first." He reached into his pack and produced two letters. "Lord Harrowmont has promised the same land to two different noble houses in exchange for their support in the Assembly -- Lady Helmi and Lord Dace. They'd never find out until after Harrowmont is crowned. These letters contain proof of his duplicity. Enough, maybe, to swing the Assembly Bhelen's way. Deliver them, and let me know what they say. And then maybe Bhelen will talk to you."

Natia took the letters. "Fine. Where will I find you?"

"In the royal palace," Vartag said. "Rica will be there, too. We should go, now; Bhelen will be expecting us. Good luck." Natia nodded at him, and then she was gone, too, hurrying to catch up with the others and find out what they had learned.

-x-

"Well, that went brilliantly." Morrigan leaned on her staff and looked around. They had gathered in the small quarters that the Speaker had found for them, off a narrow alley in the Diamond District -- apparently Grey Wardens rated at least that much consideration. "And Alistair's gift for strategy shines yet again."

"Like you came up with anything better," Alistair muttered, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall. Then he cast a sheepish glance at Natia. "Sorry. I know you wanted it to work, too."

Natia shrugged. "Sera was right, it was a long shot. But we at least had to try."

Sera settled down in a chair behind the stone desk in the corner of the room. "At least now you see the truth: we must put a king on Orzammar's throne before we can make any progress here."

"Yeah, I agree. Unfortunately, we won't be able to just walk up someone and say 'you're my man' -- they'll want us to prove our loyalty first." Natia rummaged in her pouch and pulled out the papers that Vartag had given her. "These documents prove that Harrowmont's been double-dealing some of the nobles. That might give us enough votes to swing the Assembly to Bhelen."

She held the sheaf of papers out, and Sera looked at them as though they were coated in poison. "Bhelen? I thought I made it clear that Harrowmont must take the throne."

Natia raised her eyebrows. "Rica's life might depend on supporting Bhelen. His man in the Assembly wasn't exactly subtle."

Sera's jaw tightened. "Threats, bribery, and outright lies. How likely is it that those documents are even legitimate?"

"Dunno, don't really care." Natia shrugged and folded the papers back up for safe keeping. "What does it matter to the Grey Wardens if the Orzammar nobility screw each other over? They've all done it and they'll all keep doing it, until the stone crumbles to dust."

"It does matter!" Sera gripped the arms of the chair and stood up, her knuckles white with anger. "It matters because my little brother is lying, treacherous scum, and I would see him facing justice, not wearing a crown! I'll find a way to protect your sister, but I will hear no more of this nonsense about supporting him."

Natia stared at Sera, her shouts still ringing in the rafters, blotches of bright red on her cheeks and ears. "It doesn't even matter to you, does it? My sister, my nephew -- who's also your nephew, last time I checked -- the Wardens, the dusters, anyone else who might benefit from Bhelen's kingship. You've made up your mind and won't hear any arguments against it." She shook her head. "But what else should I expect from someone who takes heads first and asks questions later?"

Sera lowered her clenched jaw and glared at Natia. "I do no such thing!"

Natia snorted. "Tell that to the mages. Or the Lady of the Forest. Or that assassin who yielded to us just in time to get his throat cut."

"What?!" Sera's mouth fell half open. "But he-- he tried to kill me!"

"And damn near succeeded!" Natia stalked across the room, stopped from getting in Sera's face only by the desk that blocked her way. "He sure came closer than anyone else who's tried so far. Maybe we could have used him -- we need all the help we can get. But no, Lady High-and-Mighty always knows what's best, doesn't care about making friends or finding real allies. Sometimes I think you're just trying to blaze through Thedas as quickly as possible so you can get this death march over with."

Sera hissed in a sharp breath and slammed her palms against the stone desk. "Are you questioning my leadership?"

"Sodding right, I'm questioning your leadership." Natia gritted her teeth and crossed her arms. "Your leadership, you, and all of your ancestors while I'm at it. What has House Aeducan ever given us? A fool of a king who didn't recognize the vipers nesting in his own bed, a sour heir too stupid to know who his enemies were, a bald-faced traitor, and you."

The blood had drained from Sera's face while Natia was reciting this litany, and at this last she sprung out from behind the desk, drawing the sword from its sheath on her back. "How dare you insult me and my family? You will answer for this, brand!"

"Fine by me!" A voice in the back of her head was whispering that this was a very bad idea, but Natia was hard-pressed to care, especially as it was being drowned out by rage. How dare Sera call her a brand, after all they'd been through together? She whipped out her daggers, and she started circling her prey. "I've beaten Orzammar's best on the Proving Grounds; can you say the same?" She feinted forward, aiming a cut at Sera's pretty, pale face; Sera jerked back and swung down with her glittering greatsword, almost too fast for Natia to dodge. If she could just get behind her...

"All right, that's enough." Morrigan's drawl cut through Natia's anger, clearing her head just enough to stop her. "Fighting amongst ourselves is pointless. Unless you really think this is the best way to stop the Blight?"

Natia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "You're right." She stared at Sera, who finally looked away with a nod, then put the sword away as Natia sheathed her own blades. "We aren't going to agree, but maybe we don't need to agree yet." Natia sat back down and thought. "What if we pursued both avenues for now? You get in Harrowmont's good graces while I get in Bhelen's. If we find common ground between them, so much the better. And maybe we'll learn enough to make a more informed decision." She smirked. "Make the decision with facts, not our emotions."

Sera was silent for a moment, and then she nodded. "All right. If that's what it takes for us to get a commitment to honoring the treaty with the Wardens, that's what it takes."

"So was I right?" Natia leaned forward in her seat. "Did Harrowmont's man give you some mission to test your loyalty?"

"Yes." Sera crossed her arms with frown. "I don't understand why; Lord Harrowmont knows my father trusted me, and he knows my feelings towards Bhelen. I should not have to jump through hoops to prove myself to him."

Natia lifted an eyebrow. "Last thing he knew, you were being exiled for treason. I don't know, a mild lack of trust seems fairly reasonable to me."

"Then you know nothing!" Sera jumped out of her seat and glared hard at Natia. "But I don't expect you to understand."

Natia exhaled, then shook her head. "Fine, whatever. We'll each take care of our own errands and meet back here tonight. If that plan meets with your approval, my lady."

If Sera heard the scorn and sarcasm in Natia's last words, she hid it well, behind a raised chin and flashing eyes, blue and hard as ice. "Then I go. I need at least two of you with me; Morrigan? Alistair?"

Morrigan rose lazily from her chair in the corner; Alistair looked back and forth between Sera and Natia, then shook his head, leaning his hand on the back of Natia's chair. Sera blew out a hard breath. "Fine. Leliana? Shale?"

"Surely it doesn't want me stomping all over Orzammar, causing riots among the natives," said Shale. "I prefer to wait here."

"If you need me..." Leliana bit her lip, looked at Sera, then Natia. "Will you be--"

"I'm fine, Leliana," Natia reassured her. "Go if you want to." Leliana still looked torn, but she picked up her bow and joined the other women, following them out the door with a quick backwards glance. Natia watched her go, then let out a sigh. "Well. I guess I know where we all stand, then." She looked up at Alistair, and he looked back at her with a calm smile.

"I said I'd support you, and I meant it. Leliana will come around, and Morrigan..." he shrugged. "It doesn't matter. In the end I doubt it matters who we put on the throne. Just as long as they lead the dwarves against the Blight." He moved his hand from the chair to her shoulder. "And if it comes to it, I promise, nothing will happen to your sister. We'll, I dunno, take her with us, find her a place on the surface."

"Thanks, Alistair." Natia stood up and stretched. "Time to get this sodding errand over with, although I'd like look around the city, too." She looked over to Shale. "You sure you want to stay behind? I'm heading to the Shaperate first, and I bet they have information about the golems."

"Oh, all right." Shale sighed. "All this walking. Sometimes, I long for the peaceful, dull days of being a statue again."

Chapter Text

It would have been childish to storm out of the room, so Sera held her head high, walked at a normal pace, and did not allow herself the satisfaction of slamming the door behind her. But still, as she walked through the Diamond Quarter toward the exit, she fumed. How dare the others question her orders, her experience, her knowledge of Orzammar's politics? She had spent her entire life learning the art of leadership at her father's knee. The idea that a duster and an unschooled bastard might think they knew better than her was intolerable.

Oddly, of all the insults Natia had hurled her way, it was the jab about the Proving that hurt the most. Sera had proven her battle prowess in the Deep Roads, against the enemies of the dwarven people; she felt no need to show off for an audience. And yet, Natia had done just that -- she had taken down some of the best that the warrior caste had to offer, by all reports with a smile on her face. Winning a Proving was the one bragging right she had over Sera, and that knowledge chafed. She thought over the assignment Dulin Forender had given her: to find out what hold Bhelen had over the men fighting for Harrowmont's name today, and if necessary take the victory herself. She had looked on the task with distaste, but perhaps she could turn a win to her advantage in more ways than one.

"Get out of here!" The sounds of scuffling came from around the corner, and, after exchanging a glance with Morrigan, Sera picked up the pace to find the cause of the commotion: a guard pushing at a broad shouldered dwarf with a long red beard, a belligerent glare, and a face that Sera remembered all too well: Oghren, the disarmed warrior, disgraced son of House Kondrat, former husband of the Paragon Branka. The guard pushed at him again. "You know you aren't allowed in the Diamond Quarter."

"Is that so?" Oghren crossed his arms with a fearsome scowl. "Well, I ain't leaving. Not until the Assembly helps me."

The guard sighed. "The Assembly can barely help themselves, Oghren, you know that. Now if you would just--"

"What's going on?" Sera stepped forward with a smile. This was not her problem, true. But even in disgrace, Oghren was the husband of a paragon and a fearsome warrior. Maybe allies could be found in strange places after all.

The guard turned to her with a small bow. "Don't worry about it, my lady. This drunken nuisance is just on his way out."

"They have to listen! Someone has to listen." Oghren turned his glare on her. "Branka's out there somewhere, and we have to find her."

"It's been two years with no sign." The guard shook his head. "Just... give it up."

"If it was your wife out there, would you 'just give it up'?" Oghren snarled. Then he threw his hands up in the air. "Fine. I'll go myself."

Sera watched him stomp off, the scent of ale wafting in his wake, and even as she wrinkled her nose, she felt a stab of sympathy. If it were Gorim lost in the Deep Roads, would she not have marshaled every force at her disposal to go after him? Even if he didn't love her any longer?

"I'm sorry you had to see that, my lady." The guard bowed again. "We've tried every threat imaginable, but he just keeps coming back."

"No apologies necessary," Sera said. "His devotion is admirable, though he must know the attempt is futile." Then she turned back to Morrigan and Leliana, thoughts of Oghren already fading to the back of her mind. "Come, we have a Proving to fight."

-x-

"So, they both want us to go after Jarvia." Natia sighed, chewed at the inside of her cheek. They had met in a side room of Tapsters for breakfast, their respective errands complete -- Natia had delivered Bhelen's stupid letters, chatting with people in the Commons and gathering intelligence along the way, while Sera had won a Proving. Her irritation with Sera aside, Natia was impressed, and she wondered if her jab about the Proving Grounds during yesterday's argument had helped spur her fellow Warden on. "I suppose it was always going to come back to her."

Sera looked at her, sharply. "What do you mean?"

"Well, I suppose you know that Jarvia took control of the Carta when Beraht died." Sera nodded, and Natia took a sip of her ale before setting it back down on the table. "And Beraht died because I killed him."

"Oh." Sera sat back in her chair, eyes wider, an expression almost like respect on her face. "That, I did not know. Is--" She look a quick look around, then leaned closer to Natia. "Is that why you're with the Wardens? You're on the run from the Carta? I confess, I had assumed it was that business with the Proving that sent you into exile."

"It was kind of both." Natia glanced at Sera; should she really tell the story when Sera was still keeping mum about her own exile, but for the hints she'd dropped about her brother? Well, better for Sera to have all the information. "I fought in a Proving, but it wasn't my idea. Beraht had the fix in, and the only way to get the outcome he wanted was for me to fight the battle myself. I got caught, Beraht arranged for me to be transferred to his 'special prison', and in the process of escaping, I killed him." Natia threw back the rest of her ale, and turned to look at Sera. "But instead of rewarding me for ridding Orzammar of a public menace, the city elders would have taken me back into custody, probably for a speedy execution. Or the Legion of the Dead, if I were very lucky. There's a tale of Dust Town justice for you."

Sera lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry."

Natia shrugged. "I got lucky. Duncan saw me at the Proving and was impressed, so he got me out and gave me a new life. And if I'm going to keep that new life, I need to take out Jarvia. Full circle, I guess."

"Perhaps," Sera murmured. She glanced up, then threw a couple of coppers on the table. "So. We should probably get moving on that, then. Do you know where Jarvia is likely to be found?"

Natia shook her head. "I was pretty low down the Carta hierarchy. They didn't tell their secrets to street thugs like me. Even if they had, most likely all the signs and passwords would have changed by now. But I still have a few friends around." Like Leske -- except she still hadn't seen a single sign of him, and she was starting to worry. What if Jarvia had gone after him? She had to know about Leske's part in Beraht's death. "Anyway, yeah. We should get going. Who do you want to bring?"

"Morrigan," Sera said, without a pause. "I don't want to go into any situation blind without her covering our backs. And you'll want to bring Alistair, I suppose." They walked out the door of Tapsters, and she cast Natia a sideways look. "He's rarely far from your side."

"The three of us are the last of the Grey Wardens. We have to look out for each other."

Sera raised her eyebrows. "Indeed. Well. It will be well enough, I think. Shale lacks the subtlety we need for this task, but perhaps also Leliana -- she seems to know a thing or two about navigating the underworld. Find them, and meet me at the entrance to Dust Town in an hour."

"See you there."

-x-

Sera had lived for twenty years in Orzammar, twenty years of being its princess and protecting its borders, with forays into the Deep Roads, the Proving Grounds, visiting every noble house in the city and many of its public spaces, but in all that time, she had never set foot in Dust Town.

When she was young, it was too dangerous; as she got older, it would have been unseemly. But her exile had changed many things, and this was one of them. She supposed this was where she belonged now, among the thugs, the poor, the unwashed. It was only her due, all she deserved any more. She stepped over the boundary, through the ancient arch that marked off the land allotted to the casteless. If Natia could hold her head up in the rest of Orzammar, then by the stone she could learn to be comfortable in the slums. They were equals, here and everywhere. "So." She turned to look at Natia, who was pacing her steps. "Where shall we start?"

Natia glanced around, then jutted her chin toward a ramshackle door that looked no different from any of the others. "That's a shop, of sorts. And as good a place to start as any." She glanced over Sera. "You should probably let me do most of the talking. And slump a little bit more -- try not to look so much like a queen. Most people won't recognize you, but someone might."

"Fine. Lead the way." Sera hesitated long enough to let Natia go ahead, then fell into step behind her. Natia went up the steps to the door, rapped it three times, then pushed it open. The shop was dusty and in disarray, the shelves filled with nicked swords, dented armor, and bottles filled with brightly-colored liquids -- probably poisons. Nothing that any respectable person would want to buy. The dwarf behind the counter had a pale beard flecked with suspicious looking brown stains and a suspicious expression, one that became no less guarded at Natia approached. "What do you want?"

Natia leaned up against the counter and smiled at the shopkeeper, showing more teeth than most would consider strictly friendly. "Just taking a look around. What are you selling?"

"This isn't a shop, as you'd think of it." The dwarf cast his scowl over the group. "But if there's something you'd like, we can negotiate."

"How about information? That's what I'm in the market for today." Natia's smile turned warmer, more flirtatious.

"Depends on the information. And what you're willing to trade for it."

Natia looked around, as if searching for non-existent listeners in the wall, then leaned forward. "Jarvia. I'm trying to find her. And there's a lot of gold in it for you if you tell me where."

"Oh, no." The shopkeeper's face went white as he took three steps backward; he didn't even flinch when he bumped against a table. "No, no, no. Not for all the gold in Orzammar am I touching that one."

Natia stepped back and closed her arms, her face sliding into a flat, calm expression. "You do know who I am."

The shopkeeper shrugged. "I know who you are, Warden. I know who your companions are, too." His eyes flicked to Sera, and she saw a flash of fear mixed with awe and hatred. "I know you're powerful and dangerous, but you're not half as dangerous to me as Jarvia. Even if I knew anything, which I don't, I wouldn't talk. Now get out, and don't come back!"

Natia raised her hands. "Fine, your loss." She turned her back on him and walked out, motioning for them to follow. Once outside, they gathered behind a boarded-up house.

"So much for that," said Sera, shaking her head.

"Nah, it's pretty much the reaction I expected." Natia glanced at the shop, then gathered the group closer together. "And we got what we needed from him: confirmation that Jarvia is in control here. And his reaction tells me that she has people running scared. So we're on the right track. We'll have to tread carefully, but we already knew that." She focused on Sera. "Jarvia isn't about to put out the welcome mat for either of us."

Sera nodded. "So, what do we do?"

"We keep asking around. We just need to be a little more subtle about it. Follow me."

-x-

A few blind alleys and a few fights later, luck found them in the form of Leske, who was standing, of all places, right in front of Natia's house.

"Leske!" Natia stepped to him, arms out, and he grabbed her in a quick hug. "I was starting to wonder where you were."

"Right here, duster," he replied with a half-grin. "Or should that be Warden, now?"

"Just Natia." She nudged him with her elbow. "Meet my-- friends. That's Alistair, and Morrigan, and Leliana, and Sera." Leske nodded to them all in turn, a light blush rising to his cheeks as he reached Sera -- she wondered if he knew who Sera was. "But really, where were you?"

"I've, uh, had to make myself scarce." Leske glanced over his shoulder, then lifted his chin to the alleyway. "Killing Beraht didn't exactly make me popular. Been dodging the Carta ever since. You getting out of here was the right move."

Natia felt a stab of guilt. "You could have come to the surface."

"And done what?" Leske shrugged, hands spread wide. "Nah. I've been... okay."

"So what brings you out of hiding?" Natia asked.

"You." Leske nodded at her. "Rumor has it you're looking for Jarvia. If I were you I'd stay the hell out of her way, but I guess you have reasons."

"Yeah." Natia sighed. "Long story. I'd just as soon avoid her myself, but Warden duties say otherwise. So.... you know something?"

Leske jerked his thumb toward her apartment and lowered his voice. "After you left and Rica moved to the palace, the Carta took over your old place. Dug an entrance to their hideout. You'll find it upstairs."

"Thanks." Natia smiled at him. "Want to come help out? It'll be just like old times."

"I-- I better not." Leske shifted his weight and glanced over his shoulder again. "Good luck, okay?" And he left, not waiting for her to respond, hustling out of the cul-de-sac and into an alley.

Sera sidled up to her. "Hmm. So we have our information. But do you trust him?"

Natia didn't move, still looking down the alley where he had gotten lost in the shadows. "Not really. But it's the best lead we have, so we might as well check it out. Keep your guard up." She went up the stairs and to her former front door. The handle didn't turn, but the lock was flimsy, almost easier to break than to open; she pulled out her picks regardless. "Not exactly a well-protected location," she murmured as she worked the pins free and opened the door.

It was strange, walking into the old place. She felt as though she'd been away for years rather than months, the dust that was the city's trademark already thick on every surface except the floor.

"Odd," Leliana said, under her breath. "Why let the mantle and tables get so dusty, but take such care to sweep the floors?"

"Fishy," Natia agreed. She glanced up the stairs, then held a finger to her lips before gesturing to everyone to stay behind her. She crept up the stairway, pausing at the door by the top to listen. Yes, someone was shuffling back there, but otherwise no one had been here for weeks. Probably they'd swept the floors to hide their footprints. Leske had pointed her to an ambush, and she felt a flush of rage and disappointment. Why would he do that to her?

She looked back at the team, crowded at the base of the stairs, waiting for her signal. Natia pointed at the door, then held up three fingers... two.... one. And then she kicked the door open, bursting inside, blades drawn and on the leader's neck before anyone inside the room could even move. "Stay right where you are, or this one gets it!" she shouted.

"Do it!" the dwarf said, straining against her grip. Sera took stock of the situation: at least a dozen Carta thugs were jammed into what had once been the bedroom she'd shared with Rica. "Never mind me. If you don't kill her, Jarvia will gut us all."

Behind her, Sera barged into the room and leveled the point of her sword at another man's stomach. "So certain you should be more frightened of Jarvia than of us?"

The second dwarf swallowed. "I dunno, boss. If we surrender, at least we can start running."

The ringleader shook his head. "Screw that." He hit Natia with a hard elbow to the stomach and tried to wrench free, but Natia was too fast for him, her dagger cutting across his neck even as she gasped for air. He fell, and then she was on another man, an archer trying to reach for his bow, and she pinned his arm to the wall. Sera's first target was down, and she had turned on another; meanwhile, others were dodging lightning bolts and arrows and Alistair's swinging shield. Natia grabbed the dwarf who had agreed to surrender from behind and laid her short sword against his bare cheek.

"Ready to talk now?" she grunted.

"Yes. Yes!" He raised his voice so the rest of his companions could hear. "I'll talk!"

Natia tightened her grip. "Do it fast, or you'll be sharing the stone with your boss."

"Jarvia knew you were coming, so she set up this ambush."

"Uh-huh. And where's the real entrance to the hideout?"

"Across from the firepit. But you can't pick the lock; you'll need a key to get in. One of these." Her captive held up something that looked like a dwarven finger bone. "Okay?"

"Okay." Natia let him go, and he staggered forward, hands to his neck. "Give me that key, and you can go."

No one had to be told twice; the four survivors scrambled down the stairs and out of the house. Natia retrieved her dagger from the wall and put it away, then sank down on the bed, finally letting the unhappiness wash over her.

"So." Sera sheathed her own sword. "Your friend is not your friend after all."

"I guess not," Natia said, looking at the floor, avoiding Alistair as he tried to catch her eye. "I wonder what happened."

Sera shrugged. "Who knows why people change, why they decide to betray you." Her voice grew hard. "There's only one way to handle people like that."

Natia shook her head. "Anyway, it doesn't matter right now. We have our way in; let's get this job done."

-x-

They had fought their way through the Carta's base, and now they stood face-to-face with the woman herself. Jarvia stood in the center of the room and smirked. "Who cares who's king in Orzammar, as long as there's a queen?"

Sera's lip curled up into a sneer. "You can't be a queen without a crown," she snarled, "and you'll have no head to wear one once I'm done. You, or your little pet." She pulled her sword free, then charged Leske, the worm who'd led them into a trap.

"No, wait!" Natia shouted behind her, but Sera had already raised her blade and begun her swing, the blood of righteous rage rushing in her ears. Her aim was true: the edge of the blade caught Leske full in the neck, and he fell, blood spurting from the wound, dying as he hit the ground. Jarvia howled a battle cry, and Sera whirled to face her, turning the blade toward her new opponent, but Jarvia was faster than Leske, and she had an axe and a sword up in time to block the attack, catching Sera's sword between her weapons. With a grunt, Sera wrenched her blade free, then swung again, a miss this time, and then she had to dance back to avoid Jarvia's attack. One more swing, one more block, and Sera and Jarvia were almost nose to nose, locked together. Then, out of the corner of her eye, Sera saw a familiar figure slipping out of shadow, and when she got her sword free, she turned it, aiming for the side of Jarvia's head with her pommel rather than the steel edge.

The attack had the desired effect: Jarvia closed her eyes and wavered on her feet, her hand pressed to her forehead, disoriented -- and then Natia was behind her, sword sliding between her ribs and into her heart, a swift strike. Jarvia gasped, arching her back as Natia pulled the blade free, and then let out a burbling scream, mortal pain mixed with rage, blood bubbling to her lips as she died.

The cleanup went quickly after that -- whoever was not already dead surrendered or fled. Within a few moments, only Sera and her companions remained. Natia approached the bodies slowly, doing a quick search of Jarvia's body before approaching Leske's prone form. She knelt by his side and bit her lip, a hand falling on his blood-soaked chest plate.

"You killed him," she said in a small voice, not looking up at Sera. "I told you to wait, and you killed him anyway."

"But--" Sera looked at Natia's quivering shoulders, then turned toward the rest of the party; she saw sorrow in Alistair's eyes, horror in Leliana's, Morrigan's calm stare. "But he betrayed you."

"And now I'll never know why." Natia closed her eyes and bowed her head, the hand resting over Leske's heart curling into a fist.

Sera shook her head as she took a few steps back, then turned to face the others. "Come on, let's search the room." And give Natia a minute alone, she thought, but did not say. Did it matter why her erstwhile friend had betrayed them? He was just as dead, either way. And now they could get on with crowning a king and getting out of this place for good.

-x-

"Jarvia is dead." Natia threw the sword they'd pulled out of her hands on Bhelen's desk -- Sera had kept her axe, in case Harrowmont required similar proof. "And we took out most of the Carta to get to her."

Bhelen picked up the blade and examined it, a smile spreading beneath his beard. "You really did it. I've had it confirmed independently, as well. It'll be a long time before the Carta has any power again, and maybe by then we'll have found some other way to keep order in Dust Town. A better way, one that gives the casteless more control over their own lives." He looked up at Natia, expression thoughtful. "My sources also tell me that my sister was fighting with you. Any reason she isn't here with you, reporting in?"

Natia stared blandly back at him. "I imagine you know as well as anyone what reasons she might have to avoid you."

"Hmph." It sounded more like a chuckle than anything, and he smiled as he put down the weapon and shook his head. "Perhaps so. Well, I won't ask what she's told you about me." He glanced up at Natia again with an arched eyebrow. "But I doubt it was flattering."

"Let's discuss a more important topic." Natia folded her arms over her chest. "Like the support you promised, now that I've taken care of some business the Aeducans should have attended to a generation ago."

"Point taken." Bhelen rested his hand on the back of his chair. "Here's the thing, friend. My support in the Assembly is growing, thanks in part to your efforts, but Harrowmont has found new pockets of support as well. So I still can't take the throne, and without the throne, I can't help you. But one thing that might toss the Assembly in my favor is the support of a Paragon."

"I thought there weren't any Paragons in Orzammar," Natia said.

"Not in the city proper," Bhelen replied. "But there is one living Paragon: Branka, in the Deep Roads."

"Branka?" Natia shook her head. "Everyone says she's dead."

"That's what we thought, but a patrol recently came back from Ortan Thaig with evidence that she'd passed that way, perhaps recently. It's worth a look, anyway." Bhelen sat down and tented his fingers on the desk. "And word is that she's looking for the secret of creating golems. Imagine how much help golems could be against your Blight! So you see, Warden, finding her is just as much in your interest as it is mine."

Natia snorted. "If you say so, my lord." More impossible errands. She would never get out of this place. "But fine. We'll leave tomorrow, and come back either with Branka's support or hard evidence of her death." She turned and left, passing down the hallway. In front of the door to Rica's room, she paused. A part of her wanted desperately to talk about what had happened in the Carta hideout, and another wanted to pretend it didn't exist. She sighed, and then she knocked.

"Come in," Rica called out, and Natia pushed the door open to see her sister in a rocking chair, the baby in her lap.

"Hello, little one," Natia murmured, holding out her finger for Endrin to grasp. He laughed, and Natia smiled for the first time since Leske... since Leske. With reluctance, she pulled away from his warm grip and looked at her hands. The first thing she had done upon exiting the old Carta shop was to find a spigot to wash the blood off of them. Leske's blood. It had taken ten minutes of scrubbing under the cold, rusty water before she felt even vaguely clean again; part of her wondered if the stains would ever truly be gone.

When she looked up, Rica was considering her with worry. "Are you all right?"

"Yes. No. I don't know." Natia looked away, eyes falling on her hands again. "You heard that I killed Jarvia? Leske was with her. By her side. On her side." She glanced up, the sympathy in Rica's eyes almost as painful as Leske's inability to look at her. "He betrayed me to her. And he was dead before I could ask why. Why, Rica? He was my partner, my-- friend. How could he do that to me?"

Rica was quiet for a moment, and then she laid a hand on Natia's shoulder. "Because Leske always looked out for himself first. And if it meant selling out a friend to do so? I'm afraid that sounds very much like him."

"I suppose." Natia sighed; Rica set her son down in the nearby bassinet and then brought her arms around Natia, who laid her head on Rica's shoulder. "But I still wanted to ask."

"You wanted him to apologize." Rica patted Natia's back, then her hair. "And he might have done so, if you'd come out ahead. But I don't know how truly he would have meant it."

Natia nodded, then squeezed her eyes shut, letting the tears that had gathered there fall, letting her big sister take care of her one last time.

-x-

"Let me guess." Natia let the door fall shut behind her. "Harrowmont wants to you go into the Deep Roads and find Branka."

Sera looked up from the maps she had spread out over the desk, took in Natia's crossed arms, her creased brow. "So, once again we have been asked to accomplish the same task."

Natia nodded. "It's almost like they planned it. Or neither of them has an original thought in their heads." From the other side of the desk, Leliana snickered. "I guess I shouldn't complain. It makes things easier if we can keep working together."

Sera straightened to her full height, grasping her fingers tightly behind her back. "So-- you are willing to keep working together, then?"

Natia looked away. "What choice do I have? Whatever I feel, we're still Grey Wardens together, and we both have an obligation to stop the Blight. What's done is done, can't do anything about it now."

A part of Sera wanted to apologize, but she couldn't. How could she apologize for killing the dwarf who was, to all appearances, Jarvia's right hand? Negotiation was all well and good, under the right circumstances, but Jarvia had not seemed willing to deal.

"Besides." Natia took a deep breath and raised her chin to look straight at Sera. "You've been leading patrols in the Deep Roads almost your whole life. It only makes sense for you to take charge down there."

Sera smiled. "Very well, then." Perhaps they'd finally get some progress made after all. "Let me show you our expected route, here."

-x-

The party departed for the Deep Roads the next morning.

There had been some discussion of whether one or two of them should stay behind to mind their holdings and the items stored there, and to monitor the ongoing political situation, but they decided against it -- there would be no way to communicate the information if they gleaned it, and if a strong lock and the city guards didn't keep determined thieves out, neither would weapons or a lone mage. So they all went together, marching down the byways of the Diamond Quarter, through the market, and up to the guards that flanked the exit from Orzammar.

By unspoken agreement, Sera had taken the lead, and so she was the one who approached the guards at the gate. "By this token, I have been given leave to travel the Deep Roads."

She handed him the letter she had received from Lord Harrowmont; the guard scrutinized it before reluctantly giving it back. "It's all in order," he said. "Are you sure about this, my-- Warden? Even with so many darkspawn heading to the surface, it's as dangerous out there than it's ever been."

"I'm sure," Sera replied with a nod. "Thank you for your concern, but we have a mission to complete."

"Ancestors guide your steps, then." The guard stepped aside, and Sera nodded to him before passing through.

"Hey! Wait! Hold up!"

Sera all but rolled her eyes as she turned around. "Oghren?"

"Yeah, it's me." The disgraced warrior trotted up to her, clad in a full set of plate, a helm clamped under his arm, a massive axe on his back. "You have to let me come with you."

"I need do no such thing." Sera lifted her chin and peered down her nose at him.

"You're trying to find Branka, aren't you?" Oghren glared back at her. His breath reeked of ale, and it was all Sera could do not to wave the smell away. "Then you need me."

Sera sighed in exasperation. "Why?"

"She's my wife, ain't she?" Oghren sniffed. "Maybe she left me, but nobody knows how her mind works better'n me. I might find clues you'd miss, notice things that seem meaningless to you. So I'm coming with you, and that's that."

"I don't think--"

Sera looked up and saw Natia staring at her from the back of the party, shaking her head vigorously. Sera raised an eyebrow, and Natia shrugged before mouthing two words in her direction: "Can't hurt."

Sera took another deep breath, sighing again. "All right. You can come, if you make yourself useful." She wrinkled her nose. "And try not to drink quite so much?"

"Oh, don't worry." Oghren patted the skin tied to his waist. "I have my own supply along."

"Yes, because that was my concern," Sera muttered to herself, "running out of ale." She looked back at Natia again with a hard stare that she hoped communicated only one thing: You'd better be right about this. She lifted her hand and waved it in a circle to encompass the whole party. "Let's move out."

Chapter Text

As they passed through the gate and into the tunnels, Natia thanked the stone that she chose to travel the Deep Roads with Duncan rather than waiting for him on the surface when he first took her from Orzammar. If she hadn't made the previous foray into the depths, she'd be a bundle of nerves right now; instead, she had a good idea of what to expect. Much better not to look weak in front of the others, especially not Sera, or this warrior Oghren, who was clearly an old hand at the Deep Roads. Alistair, on the other hand.... She glanced up at him and noted his pale face, his eyes darting from side to side.

"Hey," she murmured, reaching out to tap the back of his hand; he jumped away, then relaxed when he saw it was her. "You all right?"

"Yeah, fine, just--" He turned his head from side to side, eyes shifting over the rock walls. "It's a lot harder to forget how far underground we are."

"Ah," Natia said. "Well, just remind yourself that these tunnels have stood for thousands of years, so they aren't likely to fall down today."

"With my luck, they will," Alistair muttered, but then he smiled at her, a warm look that melted her insides. "Thanks."

"Any time." She smiled back, and he kept looking at her for a long time. Then he cleared his throat and turned forward again, falling back into his usual marching step, shortening his strides just enough for her to keep up. Something he did an awful lot, Natia realized; when had he taken up that habit?

She faced forward, taking in the group, now larger by one: Sera at the head, as usual, Leliana by her side and looking out for trouble, Morrigan just behind, and behind her was Oghren, their newest arrival. Struck with sudden curiosity, Natia skipped forward to catch up to him. "Oghren? Can we talk for a bit?"

He glanced at her, grunted. "No time to chat, Warden," he said. "Let's just get on with it, okay?"

Natia held up a hand and stepped away. "Fine, sure, whatever." She melted back in the formation, falling into step with Alistair again, Dog on her other side, Shale's heavy steps rattling the ground behind them. "Sue me for wanting to get to know the people I'll be fighting with."

Alistair glanced at her, sympathetic. "I'll talk to you, if you like."

Natia grinned. Alistair always knew how to make her feel better. "Thanks for the offer. Maybe later."

"It's a deal." His hand was close to hers, radiating warmth; almost without thinking, she reached out and hooked two fingers around his pinky. Once again, he started, but he did not pull away. And they walked together, fingers linked, breathing in unison, neither one daring to break the magic spell their hands worked in the dark.

-x-

"Caridin's Cross," Oghren said, as they emerged from the first dark tunnel into the lighted crossroads. "Entryway to the Deep Roads."

Sera cast him an annoyed look. "I know," she said. "Need I remind you that I've been patrolling the Deep Roads since I was old enough to hold a sword?"

Oghren snorted. "Right, sorry. I keep forgetting who you are. Uh, were. Which reminds me, what should I call you? My Lady Sereda Aeducan, your highness, nameless exile?"

"I am none of those things anymore," Sera replied. "The only name I have left is Sera. But if you're looking for a title, Warden will do."

"All right, Warden." Oghren glanced around the group. "Guess you can figure out from context which of the three of you I mean. So, I 'spose you already know that we're headed for Ortan Thaig?"

"Yes, which once again raises the question of why we need you."

"'Cause once you get to Ortan Thaig, where were you planning to go?" He spread his hands open and waited for her response. Sera shrugged, and he pointed at her. "Like I said, I know Branka, which means I know how to track her. She leaves particular signs in the tunnels she's already explored, things too subtle for most people to see, but I know what to look for. I can take you to her, sure enough."

"You'd better be right about this." Sera looked at Natia. "Both of you."

"What?" Natia raised her eyebrows. "I just thought it would be better to have more warriors with Deep Roads experience along. I've been in the Deep Roads all of once in my life, and Shale's probably fought here too, but it doesn't remember. Isn't more knowledge always better?"

"She has a point," Morrigan murmured; Sera looked up at her, then sighed. Well, she'd always wanted a Deep Roads command. Even if these weren't exactly the dwarven warriors she'd pictured leading.

"All right. It looks like we have a cave-in ahead, but these tunnels seem to go around. Get your torches ready, and beware the darkspawn as we move through."

-x-

It had taken the better part of a day to fight their way through Caridin's Cross -- despite Duncan's claim that the darkspawn were leaving the nesting grounds to head for the surface, Sera couldn't see that there were any fewer enemies here than she remembered seeing on an average patrol, and the proliferation of alphas and emissaries made it harder to get past them than ever. Fortunately, the months of practice going up against darkspawn -- and demons, and werewolves, and legions of mindless corpses -- had honed Sera's skills, along with the rest of her team, and whatever else Oghren might be, he certainly knew how to wield that axe to great effect. Shame he'd had to resign from the warrior ranks in disgrace -- Orzammar's army could use more like him.

"We'll make camp here," she said, "then proceed to Ortan Thaig tomorrow morning."

With a grunt of assent, Oghren dropped his weapon and his pack, flopped down on the ground next to it, and pulled out his skin to take a draught, half the ale running down the braids of his beard as he swallowed, and Sera stepped back, shaking her head with disgust. "Right," she muttered to herself. "There's a reason he got thrown out." She knelt down and unrolled her own pack, pulling out rations and the supplies to make a fire, and then found a spot on the road that had clearly been used for a firepit before. Halfway through building it, she felt eyes on her back and turned around to see Alistair looking at her. "Yes?"

"Just wondering how we'll know when morning is." Alistair glanced up at the ceiling. "Given, you know, the whole lack of sun thing and all."

"We won't," Sera replied, leaning back on her heels. "Time of day doesn't mean much down here, as I'm sure you've noticed. We run on stone sense, and a few tricks." She gestured toward the coal burner she'd placed on the ground. "This will burn for exactly eight hours. Once it's down to ashes, then we know it's time to move on."

"Ah, so we don't oversleep. Clever." Alistair knelt down next to her and poked at the burner. "Wish we'd do a better job of learning from the dwarves. I can think of all kinds of uses for something like this."

Sera had to resist the urge to thank him. She hadn't invented the thing, after all. Instead she shrugged. "Do you have the sausages? Might as well use up the fresh food while it's still good."

"Right." Alistair stood up and looked around him. "I'm going to be missing Bodahn before too long, aren't I?"

"You'll be missing a lot of things," Sera said under her breath as he walked away. So many non-dwarves on this expedition. She hoped they'd be able to take it.

-x-

It took three days to walk to Ortan Thaig: three long, hot, slow days of hacking through darkspawn and deepstalkers, sidestepping dead dwarves, and finding ways around cave-ins. Fortunately there were darkspawn tunnels through the whole route; Natia supposed Shale could have cleared them a path, but she wondered if the golem would be willing to be used as construction equipment. Reaching the door to the Thaig was a relief, stepping out of the narrow hall into the wider roadway, lit by ancient torches much lighter than the ones they had been carrying. Still, it wasn't close to as satisfying as the warm rays of the sun, beaming down from above. Odd to miss it so much, when for the first eighteen years of her life she hadn't really known it was out there.

"Ugh." Next to her, Leliana stamped dirt off her boots and shivered, wrapping her arms around herself. "How much longer will we be down here, wandering around in the dark?"

"Hard to say," Natia replied. "I don't know much about the Deep Roads, just that they've been here a long time and it used to be a lot easier to get around. But if she had enough resources, Branka could have gotten pretty far in. At least with Oghren along, we won't be as likely to waste time following dead ends." She wrinkled her nose. "Although I have to wonder: haven't people been sending expeditions in search of Branka almost since she left? If Oghren knew where to find her, why didn't anyone invite him along before?"

"Because they don't trust him, and with reason." Sera joined them, then glanced over her shoulder to make sure he wasn't listening in. "Oghren is a drunken fool who doesn't know how to behave in polite society."

Natia regarded Sera with a cool glare. "You seem to know an awful lot about it."

Sera simply nodded, seeming to ignore Natia's sharp tone. "It happened about a year ago, not long before we left Orzammar. He challenged someone to a duel and lost control, killed his opponent in a battle meant to be to first blood." She snorted. "Drunk, of course. They stripped him of his house, his title, and the right to bear arms in the city proper. I wonder--" She looked in his direction again and lowered her voice. "I wonder if that isn't his real reason for coming along, to have the chance to fight again."

"He is a demon on the battlefield," Natia said. "But, I don't know. If it were Rica lost in here, it would take an awful lot to keep me out."

Sera shook her head. "Arranged marriage. Who knows how much feeling they truly bear for one another?" She looked away. "Ah well. He's here, and he's helpful, I suppose it will do." She turned her back to them; Natia thought her shoulders looked even tighter than usual. "Come, the central thaig is this direction."

"Hah!" Some distance down the hall, Oghren slapped the wall and turned around. "I knew it; more of Branka's markings. They came this way, all right. Awhile ago, but this trail is still fresher than any of the others."

"Good. We still have plenty of time before we need to make camp, so with luck we'll discover her direction today." Sera started to march, and the rest fell into step behind her, Natia taking a position at her back. "Maybe this time-- blast it!" They had rounded the corner and now faced yet another cave-in, this one massive. Sera halted with a sigh of exasperation. "Please tell me there's a way around."

Natia stepped back, looking around for the telltale signs of darkspawn tunnels. "Yes, look, over there to the right." She held up her hand and closed her eyes for a moment, listening for the gnawing in her brain that meant darkspawn were nearby. It had taken practice to separate that feeling from the creeping taint in her own blood, and from her awareness of Alistair and Sera. But her fellow Wardens were both behind her, and these whispers were smaller, stranger, further away.

Opening her eyes, she turned around and nodded, still asking for silence with an upraised hand. She crept forward, Leliana coming to join her at the unspoken signal, an arrow already nocked and ready to fire. Together they made their way to the mouth of the tunnel, one on either side; Nadia met Leliana's eyes and then held up her hand, three fingers outstretched, lowering one each time she mouthed a number: "Three, two, one." Then she drew her daggers and charged while Leliana fired three quick arrows into the unsuspecting band of genlocks, burying a blade in the back of the closest one before it even knew they were there. She heard the rest of the party running up behind them, saw Morrigan's lightning lancing through the enemies, got out of the way of Sera and Oghren's twin charge. Pulling her dagger free, she stepped back and took a quick look around, assessing where she could to the most damage while being least underfoot; she checked for Alistair and found him, banging his shield against the face of one of the larger genlocks, a snarly sort who looked to be protecting an emissary. She caught Alistair's eye and jerked her head toward the mage, and he nodded at her, then refocused on his current target, knocking it aside with another shield blow. Meanwhile, Natia crept around the edge of the melee, back flat against the tunnel wall, making herself small and invisible as she headed for the emissary, sneaking past the ring of defenders that surrounded it.

She was almost there, blades out and ready to strike from behind, when one of the grunts whirled around and jumped into her face, roaring, its glistening teeth only inches from her nose as it sent a mace careening toward her head. She ducked just in time, a light breeze ruffling her hair, and as she stood back up, she kicked the genlock, a swift blow to the inside of its knee. It howled again, with pain this time, giving Natia an opening to draw her dagger across its neck. As it fell, she returned her attention to the emissary, who had its hands wrapped around a fireball, ready to throw it outward. Alistair had cleared out all its lackeys, though, and so it stood alone, vulnerable to his blade. It snarled and let the fire disappear, instead whipping its hand through another series of arcane motions -- and Alistair froze, his hands dropping to his sides, gasping as the bands of a crushing prison fell around him, his head thrown back, his body twitching in agony.

"Alistair!" Natia's shout became a battle cry, and she rushed forward, blades pointed outward; a few steps and she was on the emissary, slashing it across the face again and again. It lifted a staff to defend itself, and then it fell over dead with an arrow in its right eye. Thanks, Leliana, but Natia could only see Alistair, sprawled on the ground, the spell dissipated but his face still too pale, eyes closed, blood seeping from a nasty gash on his leg where a blade had found a seam in his armor. "Alistair, please wake up." She knelt on the ground behind him and took his cheeks in her hands, staring down anxiously into his face, her heart racing, her stomach heavy with fear. "Please don't be dead, please, Alistair--"

"He's not dead." Morrigan brushed Natia aside, laid a hand on his chest, and murmured a few words as the green glow of healing magic spread from her fingers and through his body. Alistair twitched, then coughed a few times, arching his whole chest with the effort. Natia let out a huge breath and the fear went with it; Morrigan withdrew and he sat up, opening his eyes and looking around a bit wildly, until he saw Natia.

He rubbed his head and sent her a rueful smile. "Thanks," he said.

Only then did Natia realize that she had been clutching her throat; her hands unclenched and she lowered them. "Sorry I didn't get there sooner."

"No harm done," he replied, getting carefully to his feet. He pulled off his helmet and rubbed the back of his head again, grimacing. "Except maybe to this helmet. Looks like it's dented beyond repair. But I can find another one. Unlike my head -- that's one per customer." He stepped forward to Natia, the joking expression fading from his eyes. "You all right?"

Natia could only nod; she wanted to reach out and touch his face again, feel the roughness of his stubble beneath her hands. But she didn't dare, not with so many people watching. And this awful realization of just how lost she would be if he died was more than she wanted to deal with right now. "Fine," she finally managed to say. "Fine. Let's just-- move on, okay?"

Alistair studied her again for a moment, then nodded. "Sure." He stepped back, and Natia busied herself with cleaning her blades.

"Let's regroup." It was Sera, calling out from a dark corner of the corridor, and Natia took the distraction, following the sound of her voice to where the rest of the team was gathering. "There are more darkspawn through there -- and possibly corrupted spiders, too, unless I miss my guess. Alistair, you hang back-- no, I don't want to hear it." He was shaking his head, but she held up her hand to stave off his protest. "You took a pretty bad knock back there, and you'll take the rest of the day to recover unless the situation gets dire."

"Yes, mistress," Alistair muttered under his breath, rolling his eyes.

Natia nudged him with her foot, forcing a lightness in her tone that she didn't really feel. "I agree with Sera. Take it easy for a change." Alistair looked away, and even in the dim light she could see his ears turning pink. She raised her voice so the rest of the group could hear. "What's the plan, then?"

"You and Leliana keep scouting forward, then signal back when you find something. The rest of us will follow, and once we've mopped up, Oghren can check for Branka's trail." Sera glanced behind her. "This tunnel should open out into the central thaig soon, which means we'll need to start exploring for more signs. And-- whatever else we can find. Ortan Thaig's been pretty well picked over, but that doesn't mean that there might not be hidden gems, artifacts or information. All right, let's go."

-x-

The next few hours passed at a snail's crawl, Natia and Leliana creeping forward around each corner, Sera holding the rest of the group back until receiving either an all-clear or the signal to attack. By that method they cleared out several packs of genlocks and giant spiders with no more major injuries, and made their way into the central hall of the thaig.

"Ortan Thaig." Oghren leaned on the handle of his axe and grimaced. "Never thought I'd see this place again."

"Not many living folks have." Sera raised her eyebrows at him. "So you've been here before?"

"Yup. On patrol once. We chased an ogre all the way here, took it out right in this entryway." Oghren jerked his head sideways with a grunt. "That might be its skull, over yonder. Not like anyone would have been here to clean it up!" He barked out a laugh as Sera looked at the pile of bones he had indicated, and then he flipped his axe around to hook it against his back. "Anyway, Branka's trail leads straight here. Guess we should just start exploring?"

"I suppose." Sera took in the scene: a handful of old buildings and downed columns dotting a large open plaza, once paved with large stones that now seemed tumbled into disarray. The room was dark but for their own torches -- the lanterns that still burned on the road seemed to have failed here -- and an odd blue glow that seemed to be coming from the river bisecting the plaza. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught motion, and she turned to look as she pulled her sword free -- and then froze at the sight of a dozen dwarves, translucent and glowing white, just like the elf spirits in the werewolves' lair, wandering about the clearing, as if going about their daily business. Sera's hands tightened around the hilt of her sword. "What-- this cannot be?"

Natia stood on her right, transfixed. "Those aren't-- they can't be-- ghosts? Have you ever seen--"

"No," Sera whispered, to herself as much as to Natia. "No."

"Oh good, you all see them too," Oghren muttered. "They sure weren't here before; I'd remember."

"What--" But Sera's attempt to ask Morrigan for her input was interrupted when one of the ghostly figures called out an alarm, and they all rushed to attack, spirit weapons drawn, within range before Sera could even blink, could even wonder whether their weapons would work on ghosts. The warrior was on her, sword raised; Sera easily knocked it aside and then swept back to take the head off his shoulders. There was little resistance, and head and body both fell, then disappeared, leaving no corpse behind. Sera gaped for a moment, then gasped as something heavy bashed into her shoulder from behind -- a mace, perhaps, or a maul? She wobbled forward, arms flailing, but somehow she kept to her feet and turned around to face her new assailant, another of the ghosts. She swung, made contact with the mace, back and forth, thrust and parry until finally she knocked him down and put the tip of her blade through his throat. The enemy jerked once, then relaxed, then vanished just as the first one had.

"So, they can die, and they can wound," Sera muttered, rolling her shoulder to test its range; it would mend, but she would need to take care until she could get a poultice on it. She turned in a slow circle and found that the enemies were all dispatched or near to it, and all the team still on their feet; good. "Here!" She raised her sword with the good arm, and the others all came to her, Shale pausing along the way to pound a stray attacker in the head. How fine would it be to have an army of these creatures to throw against the darkspawn? Had a dozen golems been stationed at Ostagar, that battle might have gone very differently.

"Everyone all right?" Sera checked for nods and saw them, noted a slash down Oghren's cheek as well as Natia's new black eye. "Anyone need a break to heal? No? Good, then we'll carry on."

"Wait." Natia took a step forward. "I want to at least talk about-- those things. Before we move on." She glanced over her shoulder into the darkness of the thaig with a shudder. "There might be more of them."

"Good point." Sera glanced at Morrigan. "Morrigan, do you know what those might have been?"

"With any other race, I would have called them Fade Echoes. Sometimes, when people die suddenly, by violence or magical means, echoes of their passing to the Fade remain." Morrigan frowned. "But your people do not pass into the beyond as the rest of us understand it."

Sera nodded. "Dwarves go back to the earth, become one with the stone."

"That's what the Shapers say," Natia said. "Does that mean it's true? How would we know?"

"Dwarves cannot be mages, we have no connection to the Fade," Sera argued. "So why would we create Fade Echoes after death?"

Natia shrugged. "They say dwarves can't travel to the Fade, but you and I both did. In the Circle, remember? When the demon sent us there? So-- why not this?"

Sera bit her lip to keep from shuddering. "I-- I do not know."

Morrigan shook her head. "Arguing about it is of no use. These creatures exist, but they can be killed; why not simply move forward?"

"You're right. We can discuss theology later. Perhaps we can visit the Shaperate when we return to Orzammar. They may know something." Sera looked at Natia. "I don't like it any better than you do, but for now, we gather the knowledge and move on. All right."

Natia kicked the ground with her toe. "All right," she murmured.

"Thank you." Sera looked at Oghren, who just shook his head; they were an enemy like any other to him. "All right. Let's keep exploring in this direction. We'll cross the plaza and then double back over the bridge if we find no sign of Branka on this side."

It took an hour of picking through the ruins and fighting the ghost creatures as well as more packs of spiders, but eventually they found themselves across the main plaza, where a cache of documents sat in the base of a ruined statue. Natia picked through them with Alistair's help, something about a request a girl in the Shaperate had made; meanwhile, Sera's attention was grabbed by a figure lurking in the shadows to her right. She turned, but it was already gone. "Did anyone--"

"I saw." Leliana hooked the bow across her back. "Not a spider, not by the way it moves, but also not a ghost creature."

Sera frowned. "Nor a darkspawn, although--" The creeping feeling across her subconscious mind was similar to a darkspawn, but not quite. It was, she realized, more like another Grey Warden, and that disturbed her. A lone Warden? "Can you follow it?" she asked.

"Of course." Leliana walked off to the right, the crunch of her boots barely audible over the broken stone floor. Sera followed at a safe distance, weapon drawn, as Leliana tracked the creature to the mouth of a cave, firelight shining from within. The others gathered around Sera as Leliana took up a position at the side of the entrance; after a moment, she lifted a finger and drew a circle in the air: the all-clear signal. Sera sheathed her sword and followed.

A fire did, indeed, burn in the center of the cave, surrounded by piles of junk, and there, huddling in the corner, was the creature who had probably scavenged it: a dwarf, ravaged by the late stages of darkspawn corruption.

"Hello?" Sera called out, taking a few steps forward. "Who's there?"

"No one!" The dwarf held up his hands in a defensive pose, backing into the stone wall: his eyes had turned nearly black, his face was swollen and bruised, and his arms were covered in dark sores. "Go away."

"We're just looking for someone." Sera backed off a few steps. "I'll take a quick look around, and then I'll leave you alone." As if to prove her point, she beckoned Oghren forward, then started looking around. Most of it was junk, but she saw a few pieces of good dwarven armor scattered through the mess, plus some gemstones, winking in the firelight.

"Leave, yes, quickly." The dwarf covered his face with his arms. "Before the Dark Ones come again."

"The Dark Ones?" Sera asked. "You mean the darkspawn?"

"Yes, yes. They come, and they fight, and they kill." The dwarf shuddered. "But not Ruck."

"Your name is Ruck?" Natia had found a fine short sword, the hilt worked with sapphires, but she almost dropped it in her haste to move to the dwarf. "How did you end up here, all alone?"

"Ruck was with the soldiers. Then Ruck got angry. So very angry. Killed a man. They said Ruck must go to the mines, so Ruck ran away." The dwarf -- Ruck -- hung his head. "So Ruck found this place. Hides from dwarves, from spiders, from Dark Ones. They fight, but Ruck is too afraid to fight back. Goes out after the fighting is done, eats of their flesh, becomes like them."

Natia's hand fell open, and the sword hit the ground. "You eat the darkspawn?"

Ruck nodded. "Eat the Dark Ones, consume them, hide in their darkness. And now the darkness is in Ruck. In you, too. And you, and you." He looked at Sera, then Alistair, nodding at each in turn, frowning. "I feel it, in you all."

Natia paled, and bile rose in the back of Sera's throat. Sometimes she forget that the corruption the Wardens carried was the same as that caused by the darkspawn. Drinking their blood, eating their flesh -- was it really so different? Eventually, the taint would take them all. Sera stared at Ruck, at the dark circles under his eyes, his hunching gait as he came forward to them, and saw her future, and Alistair's, and Natia's. The thought was so horrifying that she had to push it back. No. No, she would fall on her own sword before it happened to her.

Sera heard Natia take a deep breath; if her voice had a slight quaver as she continued, Sera couldn't blame her. "We aren't darkspawn, we're Grey Wardens. And we can help you, if you like." Natia took a few steps forward, her hand out. "Your mother is worried about you. She wants you to come home."

"Mother?" Sera looked sharply at Natia. "How do you know Ruck's mother?"

Natia sent Sera a sideways glance. "Because unlike some people, I take the time to talk with folks on the street. You should try it sometime; you might learn some things." She turned her attention back to Ruck. "Ruck, your mother--"

"No!" Ruck threw up his hands to shield his face, shaking his head furiously back and forth. "No Mother for Ruck. No Mother, no comfort, no warm blankets at night, no no no no--"

"Shhhh." Natia had reached his side, and she lightly touched his shoulder; he flinched away. "It's okay. Your mother loves you. She'll take care of you, no matter what you've done."

"You cannot, you cannot tell her!" Ruck scurried backwards away from them. "It would kill her, to know what Ruck has done, to see what he has become. Better for Ruck to be dead!"

"We could kill him." Sera said slowly, as Natia turned on her with a glare. "I know, I know. He's not a threat to us, or to anyone else. But look at him. This is advanced darkspawn corruption. He's not going to last much longer, and he might end up a ghoul, or worse. Can you really say that would be a kinder fate?"

Dog nudged Natia's thigh, and her hand fell on the back of his neck. "No," she whispered, as she looked down. "Probably not. But I don't think that's our call to make." Natia looked at Ruck. "We could tell your mother that you died. At least that would bring her peace."

"Yes." Ruck nodded. "Yes, yes, that is better."

"All right." Natia picked up the sword again, her other hand still resting on Dog. "Did you build this campsite?"

"No, Ruck found it. After the spiders had gone. So much mess, so many papers. But Ruck used what was left to build his home."

Oghren, who had ignored the conversation in favor of exploring the campsite, looked up at that. "Papers? What kind of papers?"

Ruck shrugged. "Papers with writing on them. Scribbling, notes, drawings."

"Branka's papers." Oghren turned to Sera, eyes lit with excitement. "I thought this campsite looked like her design, and that confirms it. Nothing that fragile would have survived from the original thaig. She was here, and not that long ago." He looked at Ruck. "D'ya know what happened to them?"

"The spiders," Ruck repeated. "To build their nest. Not far, across the river. Do not ask Ruck to show you."

"Thank you, Ruck." Natia put the sword on a small pile of things she had accumulated, and pulled a selection of trinkets out of her pack. Sera shook her head; it always amazed her what Natia was able to find on the road. "Would you like to trade these for some of the weapons here, as well as the information you gave us?"

Ruck nodded. "Thank you, thank you. Now go, please, before the Dark Ones know you are here."

Sera nodded her thanks to Ruck as well, and then left, eager to have the dark reminder far far behind her.

-x-

It wasn't disturbing to watch Oghren tearing through the contents of a spider queen's nest, no, not at all. Natia just didn't feel like getting involved. She probably wouldn't be able to read the papers anyway -- better to let the others handle it. She knew her limits. It was just practical. No connection to the rotting scent of the spider's corruption. Corruption surrounded her, always; there was no getting away from it, so it didn't bother her anymore. Not at all. Besides, there were more useful things she could do, like checking all the corners -- one never knew what treasure might be found in a hidden corner, and...

"Natia, come look!" Sera called her over, hand beckoning in the air. "We found her."

Natia sighed and turned back toward the nest, the piles of papers wrapped up with spider silk, picking her way around the sticky webs that covered the ground. "Branka?"

Oghren pointed to a page in an open book, and Natia sounded out the words in her head. Something about Caridin, and an anvil, and -- "Is that your name?"

"Yeah." A sudden grin transformed Oghren's features, and he actually chuckled. "The old girl was still thinking about me! Who'da thought it?" He shook his head with a happy sigh. Then he turned more serious. "But that's not the important part. She took her people into Bownammar." He closed the book with a shudder. "Figures that following Branka would lead us to the City of the Dead."

"That sounds like a lovely vacation spot," Alistair said. "Shall we pack a picnic?"

Oghren snorted. "Enjoy your jokes now, boy. We'll see who's laughing when we get there."

"All right, enough." Sera pulled a few more papers from the pile. "This looks like a map; between that and Branka's tracks, I think we should be good." She folded up the documents and placed them in their pouch, then examined the spider's cavern. "Shall we camp here?"

It was a reasonable suggestion -- the area was large enough, already cleared of enemies, near water, and yet the thought of spending a night in Ortan Thaig gave Natia a creeping dread down the back of her neck. "I'm good for a few more hours," she said. "I think we should move on."

Sera tipped her head to the side and looked at Natia, eyes narrowing thoughtfully. "Maybe you're right. If the map is correct, there's a Deep Roads entrance just past that downfall. Might be better to camp where there's light."

If the lights were even working. But Natia didn't care - even total darkness would be better than any more time in this place. Far from the ghosts, from the spiders, from the fears lurking in her heart ever since-- "I'll scout ahead, and see if there's a way through."

Chapter Text

The thaig is cold and dark. Natia hears the scrape of spiders' feet against stone in the distance, and beyond that, the darkspawn: creeping, crawling, gibbering in her ear; a pale light gleams in the distance and she follows it, only to find herself surrounded by ghosts, the glowing spirits of dwarves dead for over a thousand years. She pulls her knife and stabs one in the neck; it falls, creating a pathway for her escape, for her to bolt through and run, not looking behind, not even when confronted by a gauntlet of darkspawn, held back from attacking by some invisible force, but they are close enough to scream in her face, to cover her in spittle and blood and corruption. She runs from the ghosts and chases Ruck -- she can see him up ahead until he stumbles, falls from her view; she turns around and he is behind her, his pace slow but relentless. She turns to run away, to race through the dark corridors, but she trips and she is falling, falling, landing on her back, and Ruck looms above her, his corrupted face melting into Rica's, still dirty and ravaged by sickness. She screams as it changes again, the features morphing into Leske's, then Alistair's, and finally her own...

She woke with a start, shivering; a face looked down over her, but it was fresh and clear, not rotten, not dying. Sera crouched over her, a hand lightly shaking her shoulder. "Time to go," she said. "Are you all right?"

Natia sat up, pulling away from Sera, checking her surroundings. They were in camp, in the Deep Roads, two hours beyond the exit that the map had promised, the one behind the spider's nest. She took a breath, then exhaled in relief. "Fine."

Sera rocked back on her heels. "Darkspawn dreams?" She lowered her voice. "I had them, too."

"Not surprising, I guess." Natia pulled herself free from the bedroll and began to pack it up. "The further we get from Orzammar, the closer we are to the Horde."

"I imagine so." Sera stood. "Well, time to get moving. There's breakfast on the fire if you want some." Natia followed, eager to get some coffee and shake off the bad night and day before.

But it was not so easy. Hard as she tried, Natia could not stop thinking about Ruck, could not calm the ball of snakes that had squirmed in the pit of her stomach ever since they had left him behind. She had done as much as she could for him -- she'd even made sure to sneak some real food in with the trinkets she'd given him in trade for the armor and weapons they'd found there. Maybe he could stop eating the darkspawn. Maybe....

Natia gritted her teeth and forced her mind to blank, to banish the image of the corrupted dwarf. She closed her eyes and focused on the darkness, on breathing in, breathing out, on ignoring the distant darkspawn and nearby Wardens clawing at the edge of her mind. Another deep breath, and she opened her eyes, took a step forward-- and nearly stumbled on a loose stone in the pavement. She caught herself and stopped for a moment, breathing hard. "Stupid dreams," she muttered under her breath.

"What did you say?" Alistair had caught up to her, his head tilted sideways with concern.

"Nothing, I'm fine." She shook her head, then sighed. "Okay, you know that's not true. I-- didn't sleep very well last night."

Alistair nodded. "Dreams. I heard you talking to Sera. And I woke up a couple of times myself." Looking more closely, Natia could see dark smudges under his eyes. "Maybe it's getting closer to the darkspawn, or something."

"I just can't stop thinking about Ruck." Natia pulled her arms around herself and shuddered. "What he said, about us being like him. And what you said, after Ostagar, about how the taint will eventually catch up with us. To see him, to know that's our reward if we make it out of here alive..." She shivered again and stepped closer to Alistair, right up against him, leaning her head into his broad chest. "I've spent months trying not to think about that, but having the reminder right there, in my face, makes it hard to avoid."

"I know." Alistair patted her back, then left his hand there, warm and strong; Natia closed her eyes and leaned in closer, pressing her cheek against his breastplate. Maybe this was wrong, but she didn't care. Alistair was comforting. For the first time in a week, she felt safe. His hand traveled higher, palm against the back of her head, curling around her neck.

Natia sighed. "The thought of turning like that, alone in the dark, with nothing waiting but death -- he's terrified, and now so am I. And I don't know what scares me more: the thought of dying alone like that, or not dying at all, just... slowly rotting, mind and body."

Alistair tightening his arm around her. "It won't happen. I won't let it. You won't die alone." His next words were soft, intense, almost a growl. "I promise."

Natia stepped back, her heart skipping as she looked up at him, saw a light in his eyes. "Alistair...?"

He rested his hands on her shoulders. "I... I've been wanting to tell you, to ask you, waiting for the perfect time, but... nothing about this could ever be perfect, could it?" He lowered his eyes. "If things were perfect, I'd never have met you." She smiled, and he looked back up. "All this time, through the fighting, the traveling, the brushes with death... I've come to... care about you." His fingers tightened around her, with a grip both gentle and strong. "A great deal. And now I can't imagine my life without you in it. And sometimes I think--" He hesitated, bit his lip, then took a deep breath before continuing. "I think maybe-- that you might feel the same."

The blood came rushing to her own face all at once, warm and tingling, her heart pounding in her ears. "I--" She thought about the day before, when he had fallen to the darkspawn emissary, how frightened she had been. And a thousand other times she had feared more for his safety than her own. And the glow in her heart now. "You-- you aren't wrong." His eyes were huge, and she reached up to touch his chin -- as far up as she could reach. "I don't want to be without you, ever."

He smiled, and it was like the sunrise breaking over his face. "Good to know," he said, and then he bent down and kissed her, his palm spreading over his cheek, his lips soft and insistent against hers, her mouth yielding to his as she sighed and brought a hand around the back of his neck.

When he pulled away, she let him go, reluctantly. "Well." He cleared his throat and touched her face again, brushed a finger down her cheek, right over the brand. "I-- ah-- I hope that was all right."

Natia laughed, a quick giddy giggle. "I think I might need more testing to make sure."

Alistair's smile widened. "That can be arranged." His touch became more firm, his hand resting along the side of her jaw. "Maker's breath, you're beautiful," he murmured. "I am a lucky man." He dropped another kiss on her forehead, then backed away. "Now, um. Perhaps we should get going before the others wonder where we are."

"Yeah." They started walking again, side by side, not quite touching, but near enough that Natia was very aware of him. This complicated matters, but she wasn't going to complain. Not even a little bit.

-x-

Sera had lost count of how many days had passed since leaving Ortan Thaig. Every map said something different about which tunnels were open and which blocked; once they lost an entire waking period trying to get around a cave-in, and sometimes she feared that they were going in circles. So it was with a sigh of exquisite relief that she greeted the sight of a new door, bound with heavy iron bands. She pressed on the mechanism to open it, but nothing happened. "Let me try," Alistair said; he leaned harder on the lever, pushing down with all his strength, and produced a groaning noise from the machinery but nothing more.

"Phew!" Alistair stepped back and wrinkled his nose. "Guess we'll have to pry it open."

"I could open it," Shale offered.

Sera shook her head. "I don't want the door torn off its hinges, just opened. Alistair, maybe you and Oghren together...?"

Alistair looked at Oghren, who shrugged. "Why not?" Each of them took one side of the door and pulled, digging in their heels and yanking back; after several minutes of grunting and gasping, the door opened a small crack, then further, the frozen hinges screaming in protest. When it was wide enough for Shale to pass through, they stopped, both of them panting with the effort.

"Well, that was fun." Alistair wiped sweat from his brow and took a water skin from Natia with a grateful smile, drinking about half of it in one go before handing it to Oghren. "Don't remember anything about heavy labor being in the Warden recruitment literature."

"They left a number of things out of the brochure." Sera looked over the jammed doorway mechanism. "I wonder how Branka got through?"

"It was over a year ago," Oghren said. "At least, according to the trail signs. Maybe it was still working then."

"And maybe she broke it so no one would follow her." Sera gauged Oghren's reaction to this suggestion; he just lifted a shoulder, not bothered by the insinuation.

"Who knows," he said. "Anyway, after all that to open it, I ain't closing it again -- we might have to come back this way. C'mon, the trail signs are over here."

They had been walking down a road in fairly good repair, but the road on the other side of the broken door was older and clearly had not been maintained for centuries. Through flickering lights and past rockslides they walked, Natia, Leliana, and Dog in the lead, the others a step behind. The area was quiet -- they had not encountered any enemies at all for several hours -- but something still pricked at the back of Sera's neck, a whisper that called her forward, and at a glance she could tell that Alistair and Natia felt much the same, their own squirming darknesses set on edge, waiting for something. She had been more in tune with both of them since encountering Ruck, as though seeing their shared doom had made their differences seem less important. As they approached a curve, Natia stopped them with a hand in the air, and she wrinkled her nose.

"Do you smell it?" She turned to Sera and Oghren. "There's a cavern ahead. One that leads to open air."

"Open air? This deep?" Sera lifted her chin, closed her eyes, and took a whiff. She smelled it, all right, the slightest tinge of green and clear mixed with the flat scent of deep earth. "I agree, but--" There was something else, too, a musky and rotten undercurrent, and she opened her eyes wide. "Darkspawn."

Alistair nodded, mouth set in a grim line. "A lot of darkspawn."

Sera checked the map. "No way around. We'll have to brazen it out." She turned to Natia, and they exchanged a wordless nod; then Natia and Leliana crept around the corner together, torches extinguished, weapons drawn. Long moments passed in silence, everyone in their accustomed ready positions, waiting for the call to battle or the all-clear. But neither one came; instead, Natia and Leliana came back.

"It's a chasm all right, with a bridge over it," Natia said. "I didn't get close enough for visual confirmation, but the darkspawn seem to be massing below. If we put out the lights and move quietly enough, we should be able to get by."

"All right." Sera's mouth twisted into a quick frown; she hated to sneak past darkspawn rather than killing them. But if the part of her mind screaming at her was right, half the horde was gathered down there. A band this small would barely put a dent in it, and the work that Loghain had begun at Ostagar would be finished here, in the dark. The day to fight them would come, soon enough. Alistair put out his torch, and soon the only light was the flickering from the far-off darkspawn fires. After a moment to adjust to the dimness, Natia led them forward, Sera letting her hand trail along the wall until the wall disappeared. The stench of the darkspawn had grown more pungent, their lights brighter with every step, the distant gibbering resolving into a more clear chant, punctuated by growls and screams. With a deep breath, she stepped into the yawning cavern, the darkspawn chatter echoing off its craggy ceiling.

Next to her, Natia leaned close, touching their foreheads together. "This way," she whispered, almost more of a skin vibration than spoken words. Sera nodded, and Natia pulled away, holding up her hand, waiting until everyone was ready to follow. Then she started forward, into the middle of the space, toward the ancient bridge that Sera could now see in the flickering light.

They reached the bridge and paused, looking down for a moment, at the sweep of the horde laid out beneath them. Natia's eyes were wide, one hand balanced on Dog's shoulder; Sera let her fingers curl around the cool stone as she took them in, hurlocks and genlocks and ogres and shrieks, stretching both directions as far as the eye could see. So many darkspawn -- the scratching at her brain, around the edges of her soul, had become the rake of claws, reaching for her, tugging at her soul.

And then she knew why as a new sound joined them, a sound intimately familiar from her very worst dreams: the roar of a dragon. She ducked, and the rest of the party followed suit. Leliana nearly fell to the floor, and Natia threw her arms over her head. Overhead the dragon flew, the beating of its mighty wings like a monstrous heartbeat that buffeted the air; it swooped down and landed on the edge of the chasm, across from them and some distance away, then roared again, blasting purple fire over the heads of its darkspawn followers. The troops roared in return, holding up their weapons and shaking them in the air, a hideous rallying cheer that shook Sera to her very bones. The screams were a call to her own darkness -- underneath, she heard a whispering, a beckoning, almost resolving itself into words she could understand, if only she could hear better, come closer; a distant jangling that might be music if only she knew the notes.

And then with another flick of its wings, the dragon rose and the horde turned, marching down the chasm, the dragon flying overhead with another jet of flame; as it disappeared into the distance, Natia got up, slowly, focused on its retreat, then turned to face them all, her eyes wide with fright and determination. "Now!" she mouthed, and she ran across the bridge; almost without thinking, Sera followed, running along in the shadow of the handrail, trusting the sounds of the marching horde to drown out their passage. It was only seconds, but it felt like forever before the eight of them were safely gathered together, backs pressed up against the wall of the far side of the cavern.

"What in bloody blazes was that?" Oghren gasped, pulling off his helmet to reveal hair plastered to the sides of his head, sweaty with exertion and fear.

Sera, Natia, and Alistair all looked at each other. They all knew; none of them wanted to speak the word. But Sera swallowed down the pain, the disgust, the fear, and forced it out. "That was the archdemon."

Only Shale betrayed no reaction: Morrigan nodded, Oghren blanched, and Leliana sagged to her knees and bowed her head. "Maker preserve us," she murmured.

Sera looked at her fellow Wardens again. She wanted nothing more than to ask them if they had heard the archdemon, understood its words, but she did not dare, not in front of the others. Perhaps at camp, or when they returned to the surface. "We're safe, for now," she said. Surely they were, surely the archdemon had not known of their presence; wouldn't it have destroyed them, if it knew? "Let's look for a good place to stop for the night."

-x-

"Bownammar, City of the Dead." Natia shivered. The towers were the tallest she'd ever seen, bigger than even Denerim, and yet they looked like toys in this massive cavern. It was an impregnable fortress, and it fell to the darkspawn, just like all the others.

"Because the rest of the thaigs are so lively," Alistair said, shaking his head.

"Yeah, but this place belonged to the Legion. It's different." Natia wished she knew more about the Legion -- for all of her life, they'd been little more to her than a threat, the place that dusters were sent if they wanted to avoid execution. She had always feared being forced into the Legion, but it was preferable to the headsman's axe. It still meant death, but at least it was death with a purpose. Like being a Grey Warden.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of shouting and a clash of arms; she turned the corner and saw a dwarf patrol battling a team of hurlocks. After a quick exchange of looks with Sera, Natia charged forward and into the fray, cutting a hurlock at the knees before it knew she was there. It screamed and fell, and then she whirled around to engage the next, stabbing it first in the neck and then in the chest. The dwarf it had been fighting fell back with a nod, and Natia noticed that her face was emblazoned with the distinctive tattoos of the Legion. Of course; no other patrols worked this deep. Natia returned the nod, then turned around to check that all the darkspawn were down. None were visible, but there were others not far, gathered on the other side of a crumbling bridge.

Natia put her weapons away and went to Sera, who stood with a bald dwarf who looked to be in charge. Sera put her hands across her chest and bowed to him. "Atrast vala."

"Atrast vala, Grey Warden." The dwarf nodded in return. "I am Kardol, leader of this troupe. I'd heard you were with the Wardens, but I didn't expect to see you here."

"We're on an errand relating to the Blight," Sera said. "And you? Why is the Legion encamped here?"

"Holding the line." Kardol folded his arms. "Already dead or not, it would be suicide to attempt to take back Bownammar. Until someone gets their butt on the throne and orders me to clear the area out, as part of a clear plan of attack, we hold the line here."

Natia stepped forward. "You could help us fight the Blight."

Kardol snorted. "Why? Blight's a surfacer problem. Actually, it makes our work easier -- more darkspawn on the surface means fewer down here. Give me a dwarven reason to help, and then maybe I will, but until then, we stay right here."

Natia shook her head. "You're wrong. The Blights affect us all, even the dwarves underground. How long could we survive under here without trading with the surface for food and gold? Other cities tried cutting themselves off and-- well." She indicated Bownammar with a wave of her hand. "You see how well that worked out for them."

"Hmph." A thoughtful expression crossed Kardol's face. "You have a point there. Well, I'll think about it. But we can't leave, not and keep holding this line."

Natia looked at Sera, who responded with a faint smile. "We'll see about that," Natia replied, and pulled her weapons as she turned. "Charge!"

-x-

The last of the hurlock archers fell as Natia pulled her dagger out of its back. She stepped away and looked around at the darkspawn bodies littering the stairways and the bridge, a slow smile of satisfaction growing across her face as she nodded. "I think it's safe to say that we're getting pretty good at this," she said.

Sera watched as Natia approached, still grinning. It was the first genuine smile she'd seen on Natia's face for days. Since Ruck, at least. "We've had a lot of practice, that's for certain."

"And I suppose we'll get even more," Natia said with a laugh. "What do you think, Kardol?"

The Legionnaire stepped off the bridge, shaking his head, looking over the dead with an expression of awe. "You're an impressive bunch, I can't deny that. Maybe you'll see your way to clearing this Blight after all." He walked up to Natia and stuck out his hand. "You'll have your help, Warden, whenever you need it."

Natia took Kardol's hand and shook it; Sera tamped down the surge of jealousy. Maybe Natia was right; maybe there were more allies to be found in this fight than she had let herself realize. She drifted away as they began discussing ways to get in contact when the time came, busying herself with looking for an entrance to the city.

-x-

Natia shut the door behind her and stepped onto the landing of the bridge, where the others were waiting. "The next room is clear," she said, "but not the one beyond. Not darkspawn -- I don't feel anything nearby -- but I heard something moving around inside." She looked at Sera, who stood at the back, sword already out and ready. "Do we attack straight on, or do you want to set up an ambush? The room seems to mirror the one of the other side of the bridge, with the large pillar in the center, so I'd think an ambush would work well, but--"

"I trust your judgment," Sera replied. "An ambush it is. You lure them out, and we'll set up the door as a bottleneck."

"You got it." Natia pulled a weapon and slapped Dog on the flank; he looked up at her, panting happily. "You're with me, boy. Leliana, I'll slip around the back, then you fire an arrow through to get their attention. Everyone else, set up by the door, and wait for me to draw them here." She looked around the group as everyone armed themselves; when she judged them ready, she opened the door and walked through, creeping quietly around the edges until she reached the second door. Leliana set up, arrow nocked, against the wall with the door to her left, and exchanged a nod with Natia, who took a deep breath before opening the door and carrying on alone.

Her guess had been correct: the rooms did mirror those on the other side of the bridge, so the door opened into a large hall. And she'd been correct about the enemy, too, by the number of skeleton warriors that wandered around the space, more old bones rising before her eyes. She had just long enough to gauge their numbers before they saw her, and then she was rushing forward, Dog bounding ahead of her to knock down one of the archers before it could even draw its bow. An arrow whizzed over Natia's head and buried itself in the eye socket of her target, a sword-wielder; confident she had their attention, she turned around and ran for the door. The skeletons were behind her -- she could hear their growling and the clack of their bones. She reached the threshold and stepped through, ducking to get beneath Oghren's axe as he swung it into the leader's ribcage with a tremendous crash. And then she darted back through the door, letting the warriors do their work with swords and shields, axes and mighty stone fists, while she caught up with her war hound to take out the stragglers.

Morrigan had slipped inside, too; out of the corner of her eye, Natia saw her, blasting the skeletons with ice and freezing them in place for Dog to bowl over. Natia skirted around the side, and as she slashed through the spine of one of the archers she heard a new sound in the distance: a voice. Not darkspawn, babbling and gibbering, nor the battle shouts of the Legion, but a woman's voice, low and desperate, speaking words Natia could not quite make out. She paused to listen, then cried out -- in her moment of inattention, one of the skeletons had gotten through her defenses, a blade biting through her leather armor and into the flesh of her upper arm. Vision hazy with pain, she lashed back, smashing the butt of her dagger into the skeleton's face. It screamed and jerked away-- right into Alistair's sword, the tip severing its head from what remained of its neck. Reverting to a pile of bones, it fell, clattering on the floor, and Alistair almost kicked it aside in his haste to put his hands on Natia's arm and examine the damage. "Are you all right?" he asked, anxiety plain in his voice and face.

"Yeah, I'm fine, it's just a scratch." Natia looked down at the cut leather, the bleeding that had already started to slow. "I guess the armor will have to be patched later." Alistair pulled a poultice out of his pack, but Natia waved him off. "Save it," she said. "It's not that bad." Once again, they had destroyed a pack of enemies with only minimal damage. It would have been encouraging, but now they'd seen the darkspawn horde, knew the true magnitude of what they were up against. It was like fifty Ostagars, all at the same time. With the dwarven infighting, and Arl Eamon still lying on his deathbed, and all the mages in the tower lost, it still seemed unlikely that they would ever gather an army big enough to fight it.

"Odd." Sera's voice jolted Natia from her hopeless reverie, and she grabbed onto the distraction. "I don't sense any darkspawn nearby, and yet..."

Natia noted the pile of quivering corrupted flesh in the center of the room. "There's a lot of darkspawn around, somewhere. I haven't seen a mess like this since the Circle Tower."

Alistair pulled a face at the memory. "Maybe there's another way around?"

Oghren shook his head. "Branka came this way, for sure; if we want to find her, we have to keep pushing forward."

"Unfortunately, Oghren is right," Natia said. "I-- listen! Do you hear that?"

It was the woman's voice again, still too quiet and distant for Natia to understand; Alistair cocked his head sideways. He looked like Dog, trying to hear a rabbit in the bushes, and Natia almost laughed. He narrowed his eyes with a nod. "Sounds like a woman."

"I hear it, too," Sera said. "Now, and during the battle." The voice was low and melodic, which might have added to Natia's impression that the voice was chanting something, or perhaps reciting a poem. Sera turned to Oghren. "Is that Branka?"

"Nope." Oghren shrugged. "Just keep moving, Warden."

Sera nodded and advanced to the door at the far right corner of the room. "This looks to be the only exit, what with the bridge over the trench destroyed. Let's hope there's a tunnel through." She pulled the door open, and the woman's voice came through it, clear now, no longer muffled by the heavy iron door:

"First day, they come and catch everyone."

The voice rose and fell in a sweet cadence, like a mother telling a bedtime story. Natia's eyes narrowed, and she looked at Sera. "What?"

Sera shook her head. "I don't know. Perhaps--"

"Second day, they beat us and eat some for meat."

"They? The darkspawn?" Natia thought of Ruck, eating darkspawn to live and to hide in the darkness; did it somehow work in reverse, too? She shuddered and stepped closer to Alistair.

"The darkspawn are like animals; it wouldn't be the first time I'd heard of such a thing." Sera paused only long enough to make sure the rest were following, then led them through the tunnel entrance at the end of the chamber.

"Third day, the men are all gnawed on again."

"Yeah, all right, we get it," Alistair muttered, clenching hands into fists. "You can stop now." They entered the tunnel and turned a corner, an abandoned campfire burning in the distance.

"Fourth day, we wait and fear for our fate."

"Fifth day, they return and it's another girl's turn."

Each line came a beat after the last, like a slow recitation of a prayer or a poem, but if it were a prayer, it was unlike any Natia had ever heard. She kept walking forward, no one wanting to talk; even Morrigan looked queasy as they all waited for the next line.

"Sixth day, her screams we hear in our dreams."

Another twist in the corridor, another empty fire; where were the darkspawn? What terrible thing was happening beyond the next turn? Without thought, or care for appearances, Natia found herself reaching for Alistair, and he grabbed her hand, enveloping her fingers with his; she clung back, not caring that the metal joints of his gauntlet were biting through her leather gloves.

"Seventh day, she grew as in her mouth they spew."

Natia felt Alistair's shudder, saw the stiffening of Sera's shoulders, felt the cold ball growing in her gut. She wanted to stop walking, to deny herself the knowledge that this poem was giving her. The darkspawn couldn't-- they wouldn't-- how could this be--"

"Eighth day, we hate it as she is violated."

There were no sounds in the world but the crackling fires, the soft crunch of boots on packed earth, and this beautiful, terrible voice. There was a door up ahead, and Natia couldn't decide if she wanted to pass through, or just hide in this corridor forever.

"Ninth day, she grins and devours her kin."

Sera paused at the threshold, then stepped through; with a deep breath Natia followed. They emerged into a room filthy with darkspawn corruption, the floor almost a living thing wound through with tendrils of flesh and growths. Another doorway, another turn; the next room was larger, dirty, and in the center, surrounded by the ropy flesh and darkspawn corpses, stood a woman-- a dwarva-- a ghoul-- hunched over as she picked through the horrors, and she spoke:

"Now she does feast, as she's become the beast."

No one moved, no one spoke, except for the woman, beginning her recital again, as though she would weave a spell around them, trapping them where they stood:

"First day, they come and catch everyone.

"Second day, they beat us and eat some for meat.

"Third day, the men are all gnawed on again.

"Fourth day, we wait and fear--"

"Hespith?"

It was Oghren, his words breaking the binding as he walked forward to the woman, his eyes wide with horror. "Hespith, is that you? What happened to you, woman?"

Natia was able to breathe again as the woman looked up; she pulled herself from Alistair's grip and followed Sera as she approached Hespith. She was a ghoul, all right, much further along than Ruck, her eyes clouded and her skin covered with open sores, but it was different, too. She smelled different, like bile and sweat and rotting sweetness, the miasma almost too much to bear. She turned to face Sera, and then bowed her head.

"What's this? My lady? The Aeducans, following us, come to find us at last? A friendly face, to torment me with dreams?"

The old pain flashed across Sera's face, and then it was gone as she shook her head. "I'm not Lady Aeducan anymore. We're Grey Wardens, and we're here to help, if we can."

Natia raised an eyebrow at that. To help, not to find Branka? An unusual sentiment, from the Grey Warden Sera. But then again, how could you look at this creature and not want to help her?

"There is no help. Only hope and body, and both are turning..." Hespith's voice trailed off and she looked up at the ceiling. "The men were sacrificed, marched off to die, but not Laryn, not me. We stayed behind, and they fed us. Friends, and flesh, and blood and bile, and-- and-- I prayed. I hoped for Laryn to go first. But that meant-- I had to watch her change. How could I endure that? How could Branka endure?"

"Branka?" Sera's eyes lit up, and Natia shrank back from the naked avarice on her face. "Do you know where she is?"

Hespith looked up, deep furrows of anger and pain suddenly etching themselves across her brow. "I will not speak of her! Of Branka, what she did. What she allowed it happen." She lowered her head again, eyes fastening on the floor, and she picked at a scab on her hand. "I, who was her captain, and could not stop her. Her lover, and I could not make her see. Her desire for power, for the anvil, was the obsession that consumed her, and I could not, could not stop--" She started shaking her head, side to side, trembling.

"Her lover," Natia murmured, looking from Hespith to Oghren, who stood a pace back, his face blank. She wondered if he had known.

"Branka brought us here, her people, the ones she should have protected. And instead she let them use us, use Laryn, watched as she ripped off her husband's face and drank his blood, as she became-- as I become-- How do you watch that, and not descend into madness?" Hespith turned her face away. "And now all there is left is to wait, wait until the dream becomes the nightmare and the nightmare becomes real."

"Hespith?" Natia found her voice again, finally, swallowing down the sour taste in the back of her throat as she moved to Sera's side. "Please, tell us how we can help you."

She shook her head, slowly and said nothing, only turned her hunched back on them and shuffled away, still rubbing at the sores on her hands. Sera watched her for a moment, then looked at Natia. "It's like Ruck; she's too far gone."

Natia followed Hespith toward the exit, keeping her distance. "Is it darkspawn corruption?" She watched Hespith scurry away and noted the unusual pattern of bruising on her arms and neck. "It looks-- different."

"It is," Sera replied with a frown. "It might be because she didn't just ingest the blood or the flesh, but-- other things." No one could say the words. It was too horrifying, too monstrous, to allow words to make it real.

"Well, we need to go that way." Oghren shuddered. "Not sure I want to know what's there, but--"

"Right." Sera squared her shoulders and lead them on.

-x-

Sera stepped into the cavern. In the distance, across three broken bridges, she could see the entrance to Bownammar. If the bridges still stood, they could have walked here in ten minutes; instead, it had taken the better part of a day. She took a deep breath of the fresher air, then turned to Oghren at her right hand. "Which way?"

Oghren gestured toward a pair of heavy doors set into the wall on her left. "Through there, I think. The signs are a bit muddied up here, but given that Hespith is standing right there..."

"Seems likely," Sera agreed. A key lay in the dust near her feet, and she knelt to pick it up. "And this will get us through, I suppose." She cast an apprehensive look at Hespith and the doors. "I don't know if I want to see what's on the other side."

"We'll have to take care of those first." Natia pointed across the courtyard as two ogres burst out of the shadows. Shale charged forward, Oghren swinging his axe overhead right behind; Morrigan froze one ogre and Leliana filled it with a volley of arrows. Sera came around behind the second ogre; it was distracted by Shale's fists, and so she was free to strike it in the back, hacking at its spine with a mighty blow. It roared, and she ran up its shoulders, using the weight of her sword to crack its skull, black blood flowing freely as it fell forward.

"All right." Sera yanked her sword out of the ogre's head. "Let's get this over with." She marched up to the door, Hespith stepping aside as she put the key in the latch.

"They took Laryn," she said, voice hushed as she fell into step next to Sera, neither following nor leading, through the desecrated room and into a tunnel, fresher than most others they'd seen. "They brought her here, and made her eat the others. And she swelled, and grew, and turned grey, and then--" She stopped short at the entrance to the tunnel, and then she spoke one last word, fraught with anger and fear. "Broodmother."

Sera whirled around, looked at Hespith, examined the bruises one more time. No, not bruises. Swellings. The grey cast to her skin. The smell of corruption and rotting flesh and sour milk, and the horror of the truth came over her. "No," she whispered. "Ancestors preserve us, no!"

Natia, a few paces behind on the sloping path, looked up at her. "What is it?"

Sera looked back, eyes wide. "We have to kill it. Come, this way!" And she raced forward, around the corner to the sight she knew awaited them. Natia ran up to her side, and went around the corner and then gasped.

"Is that-- is that--"

"Broodmother." Sera spoke the word grimly. "We have to kill her, now, before she spawns. This way!" She had drawn her blade already and she rushed forward, to the creature who had once been the woman Laryn, now backed up against the wall, her face swollen, teeth twisted into fangs, her body covered in monstrous breasts, tentacles shooting up from the ground behind her, stubby arms not that different from the ones she must have had before. Sera had heard rumors of the broodmothers, horror stories told by soldiers back from deep patrol, but that was no preparation for seeing one. It was all she could do not to vomit in fear and loathing. So she would kill the abomination instead, thrusting her sword into Laryn's belly.

The broodmother howled, and Sera twisted the blade, hoping she had caught some vital organ, but before she could strike again, she felt a crushing blow to the back of her head. She lost her footing and rolled away before the giant tentacle could smash her again; scrambling to her feet, she saw that Morrigan was slowing and freezing the tentacles as best she could, Shale smashing others with its fists and feet, while Alistair, Leliana, and Natia struggled against genlocks that emerged from the shadows. No, she realized; not the shadows, the broodmother -- she was birthing an army to fight them.

"We've got these!" Natia shouted across the cave as she slashed a dagger across one genlock's neck before stabbing it hard in the belly with her sword. "You and Oghren take her out!"

"Right." Sera looked up into the broodmother's face. "I'm sorry, Laryn." Then she met Oghren's eyes with a nod, and they began again, hacking at her flesh, avoiding the poison she attempted to spit in their faces. Once the spray hit, and Sera had to back away, temporarily blinded; she splashed water across her face to wash it away and waded in again, heedless of the burning against her skin, her sore arms, the pools of blood she slipped in as she attacked. Finally she drew her arm back and thrust the blade into the broodmother's neck; Laryn choked on her own blood as she screamed, black blood mixing with poison to flow down her body and splash on the ground. Sera staggered away, no longer able to ignore the pain, and she closed her eyes, fell backwards, and knew nothing more.

-x-

Gentle hands on her face, accompanied by the cool touch of healing magic, brought Sera back. Morrigan was looking down at her with her pale eyes, frowning. "You pushed yourself a bit hard there. Take more care next time, hmm?"

Sera sat up, the blood rushing to her head; she closed her eyes for a moment and rested her palm against her forehead, regaining balance. "It had to be done." She looked up at the dead broodmother, the darkspawn corpses that littered the floor. "Hespith?"

Natia appeared, looking grim, and not just because of the blood and bruises that covered her face. "She went around the back. I think she was watching, before." She turned around and looked up; Sera followed her gaze and saw Hespith perched, high above. "Hespith? Please, come down. Let us try to help you."

Hespith spread her hands wide, encompassing the broodmother and all her dead children. "That's where they come from. That's why they need us. That's why they hate us... that's why they feed us." She looked at Natia, then at Sera, her eyes burning with truth, with a warning. And down to her toes, Sera shivered. "But the abomination is not that it occurred, but that it was allowed." Hespith lowered her head, looked away, over her shoulder. " Branka... my love. I am dying of something worse than death." Her next word was a near whisper, and yet it echoed in the chasm below, bounced through the cave, seared itself into Sera's heart: "Betrayal."

She turned away, disappeared into the darkness. "Wait!" Natia cried, reaching forward, but it was too late -- a crunching of earth underfoot, then awful silence followed by a distant thud. Hespith had died rather than turn, and Sera couldn't bring herself to blame her.

Sera let out a breath. "We need to make camp, but-- not here." Natia looked at her with wide eyes and a sick expression. "I think I saw an exit tunnel that way." She picked up her sword and wiped it on a clean patch of earth before putting it away and leading the march, not sparing a backwards glance for the horror behind her.

Chapter Text

Despite their exhaustion and heart-sickness, it took hours of trudging through the tunnels before anyone was ready to stop. More than once, Natia halted in her tracks, too weary to take one step more; then she glanced over her shoulder, remembered what lay behind, and found the energy to keep moving forward. Finally, Dog flopped down in the middle of the path, crossed his paws and laid his snout on them, whimpering. Natia stripped off her weapons as she sank to her knees, laid her head on his side, and curled up against him. "I'm sorry, boy," she murmured into his short fur. "You're right, it's time to stop now."

She screwed her eyes shut and buried her face in his flank, breathing his doggy scent, so alive and comforting, so unlike the smell of the broodmother, and the cold tendrils around her stomach began to unclench, just a little. Around her, she could hear the quiet bustling of the others setting a fire, putting out bedrolls, preparing food; she knew she should help out, but she wanted to be selfish just a moment longer. Dog was so warm, so safe, so far from the things she feared...

"Natia? Dearest?" Alistair's hand rested on her back, shaking her awake, and he spoke softly in her ear. "Wake up, the food is ready."

She was aware of the rich, grainy smell of porridge; hunger clawed at her stomach, but her brain rebelled at the thought, and she turned her nose into Dog's back again. "I'm not hungry."

"Still, you need to eat something." He rubbed a spot between her shoulder blades, his hand warm and comforting. "C'mon, just a little bit? For me?"

Natia groaned, but she sat up, relinquishing her hold on the mabari for the dubious charms of dinner gruel. She turned around to see Alistair, down on one knee, his face pale. "Do I get a cookie afterwards?"

He smiled, a pale shadow of his usual warm grin. "Drat, I'm all out. Remind me to stock up the next time we find a shop."

"Ah well." Natia stretched her arms over her head and felt every joint crack, and then she stood, resting a hand on Alistair's arm for balance. Sera knelt by the pot over the campfire, stirring it; at Natia's approach, she turned.

"Good, you're up. Here, I'll get you a bowl. You might not be hungry -- I know I wasn't -- but warm food in your belly will do you good."

She dished up a bowl of the porridge and handed it to Natia, who took it with a skeptical glance at its tan, mealy contents. She stirred it a few times, then took a cautious bite; it was a little sweet, a little spicy, and went down warm and easy. It settled in her stomach and melted the icy fear there, just a little bit more. With a sigh, she sat down, crossing her legs and fell to eating, her Grey Warden appetite finally winning out over all the horrors of the Deep Roads.

Alistair sat next to her and the three of them ate in silence. Natia was halfway through her second serving before she noticed that they were alone, but for Dog, who hadn't moved from the spot where he'd staged his rebellion. He was awake, too, gnawing on a bone that someone had found for him -- Natia decided not to ask where. Instead, she looked at Sera, who calmly downed her own meal across the fire. "Where did everyone go?"

Sera took the spoon out of her mouth and licked the back of it. "Shale and Oghren are on first watch, and Morrigan and Leliana went to find water -- the map says there's a spring nearby. I shouldn't be surprised if they stopped to take a bath. And-- well." She looked at Alistair, then back to Natia. "We have Warden business to discuss."

"Yes." Natia put the empty porridge bowl in her lap and reached for the skin of ale, downing a healthy swallow before she felt ready to continue. "The broodmother-- is that what I think it was?" She looked to Alistair. "Do the Grey Wardens know about them?"

"I suppose they must," Alistair replied, "at least some of them. But they sure never told me." He shuddered and set his bowl on the ground. "Believe me, I would've warned you before we got this far."

"The dwarven military is aware of them." Sera leaned back against her hands and sighed. "But encounters are rare. If I'd thought there was any chance--" She looked at Natia, eyes open and pleading, more contrite than Natia had ever before seen. "But it doesn't matter. I should have told you both. The Wardens kept too many secrets from us. I should know better than to keep them from you."

"It's all right," Natia said. "You didn't know it would matter."

"And yet it does matter." Sera swallowed and looked down. "What I did not know -- what none of us knew -- is how the broodmothers are... made." She shivered, and Natia could not help but do the same. "And that is something you deserved to know. That allthat."

Alistair lowered his head and twisted his hands together in his lap. "I bet the Wardens do know. Maybe that's why they recruit so few women into the Order. Because of the risk, when the time comes for their Calling."

"That could be," Sera said. "In which case, if we ever find any others, we ought to have a talk with the Warden leaders about their policies in this matter."

"Yes." Natia scooted a little closer to the fire, and looked up into Sera's eyes. "It won't happen to us. Never. When the time comes, when we make our last trip to the Deep Roads..."

Sera looked back at her, the firelight dancing in her eyes. "We go together, we watch each other's backs..."

"And we don't let them take us alive." Natia finished the thought, and raised her ale skin in salute. "By the stone and my ancestors, I swear it."

"By the stone and my ancestors," Sera repeated with a nod, her eyes still locked on Natia's, warm with gratitude. Then the moment passed, and Sera relaxed, leaning away from the fire. Natia settled back down as well, scooting closer to Alistair. Then Sera cleared her throat, and Natia looked at her again. "Speaking of secrets, and not keeping them from one another, I suppose I ought to tell you that I know."

"You know what?" Natia asked, and then felt immediately stupid as Sera broke out with a smile, looking back and forth between her and Alistair.

"About the two of you, of course. Not-- details," she hastened to add, holding up a hand with a chuckle as the tips of Alistair's ears turned bright red. "Please. But the time you spend together, the way you look at each other, how you rush to each other's aid?" She cocked her head to the side, and Natia felt the blood rushing to her own cheeks. "I'm sure everyone has noticed, except maybe Shale, and I wouldn't even lay odds on that. Now, I have no idea whether the Grey Wardens have any rules about fraternization, but I don't really care. Just don't let it get in the way of the mission. And it's probably better not to spend too much time canoodling in front of everyone else." Alistair made a strangled noise in the back of this throat. "But don't worry about hiding it." She stood up, her smile slipping into a more wistful expression. "Whatever happiness can be found in times as dark as these is a good thing."

Following an impulse, Natia got to her feet and went to Sera's side, taking her hand. "Thank you," she said softly. She studied Sera's face. Whatever pain had etched those lines was fresh, the loss still keenly felt. "And I'm sorry." She leaned forward and placed a sisterly kiss on Sera's cheek; Sera pulled away and touched the spot with her palm, surprised.

"I... thank you," she said. "I'm taking last watch, so I should sleep now. Let Oghren know when you're ready to relieve him?"

"Of course." Natia watched as Sera walked to the other side of camp and rolled up in her blankets, her back to them, and then she sat next to Alistair, who put an arm around her and pulled her close. "That was a surprise."

"Probably shouldn't have been," Alistair replied. "Sounds like it was obvious to everyone but us."

Natia giggled, mostly with giddy relief -- she hadn't realized until now how concerned she'd been about Sera finding them out and being upset. "Always the last to know."

Alistair brought his hand around the side of her head and stroked her hair. "Look, an empty camp," he said. "We should take advantage."

"Mmm." He leaned down and touched their lips together; she wound her hands around his neck and pulled him closer, his kiss banishing the darkness from her soul.

-x-

When Sera returned from her watch, the fire was down to its morning embers and the rest of the party was asleep, all but for Shale, who had kept its full nights watch up on the other side of camp. As she looked over the group, one bedroll caught her eye, on the far edge of the camp: two heads poked out of it, not one, as Natia slept curled up against Alistair's chest. Sera had to smile, a bit amused, a bit wistful. She had not particularly wanted Alistair for herself -- he was too young, too gawky, too human -- but she did feel a pang of jealously that the other two Wardens had found something in each other that she had not been able to see in either of them, or in anyone else. She remembered Gorim, flashing back to nights spent in his arms, their last embrace in the prison cell, the pain in his eyes when she found him in Denerim, too late... She looked away from the lovers and sighed, trying to let his memory go. Better this way, better not to be distracted. Or so she would keep telling herself.

Meanwhile, it was time to go. She put out the fire and then woke Dog, nudging him with her toe. The mabari jumped awake with a yelp, then bounded off to wake his mistress with a cold, wet, nose to her face. Sera heard Natia groan and attempt to push him away, but he only applied his tongue with more vigor, and she sat up with several muttered curses; Sera stifled her laughter.

Once they were all up and ready -- eaten, camp broken, faces splashed with the water Morrigan and Leliana had brought back from the spring -- Sera gathered the team around her. "Oghren did some scouting last night and confirmed that we're going in the right direction -- right?"

She looked at him, and he nodded. "Between the trail signs, the maps, and Branka's notes, looks like we're heading for a place called 'The Anvil of the Void'. S'posed to be where Caridin hid the anvil he used to make golems. A day away at most, maybe less since we came so far yesterday."

"Good." Sera folded up her map and stuck it in her pouch. "If Branka is to be found anywhere, it's probably there. Let's move out."

-x-

As always in the Deep Roads, Natia quickly lost track of time after leaving camp. The roads were suspiciously clear, but she was not inclined to complain. Maybe it was just the archdemon rounding up its troops to head for the surface. That was ominous enough; she had no need to borrow more trouble.

The tunnel emerged into a roadway, and the roadway lead to an open door; the party trooped through it, and then it slid shut behind them with an alarming bang. Alistair grabbed at the handle, but it was jammed. There would be no going back that way. "Just what we needed," he grumbled.

"Who's there?" It was a woman's voice, as harsh and unforgiving as Hespith's had been gentle and melodic. Natia turned around, then fell back as a female dwarf appeared above them, perched atop a pile of large boulders. This thaig had fallen into complete disrepair -- no standing walls, no coherent buildings, just a jumble of ancient rock. The newcomer's hair was dark, her eyes bright, and her forehead lined with worries as she scowled at the group. "After all this time, my patience for the social graces has grown limited. You won't have a problem with that, I hope."

"Well shave my back and call me an elf! Branka!" Oghren bounded forward, and even from his profile Natia could see that he was beaming, a huge smile spreading beneath his beard. "I barely recognized you."

"Oghren." Branka's reply did not carry nearly as much enthusiasm as his greeting. "It figures you'd find your way here eventually. You can find your way back just as easily." She turned to the rest of the party. "And the rest of you? Tell me, what jumped up noble-- oh, my lady Aeducan." She crossed her arms. "So, old Endrin sends his pet princess at last, thinking to drag me back to Orzammar? Well, I won't go."

Sera had turned pale, and Natia could see her struggling to hold back, not to snap at Branka in return. "I am no longer a member of House Aeducan," she replied, calm voice belied by the tension in her shoulders.

"That's right," Oghren growled. "She's a Grey Warden now, and you'll show some respect!"

Branka raised her eyebrows. "I don't care what her title is. She's still someone's errand girl, which leaves the same question -- who, and why now?"

Sera shook her head. "No one. We are here for our own interests: the Blight has come to Ferelden, and we require your assistance to put a king on Orzammar's throne."

"So the old man kicked it at last, did he?" Branka stared Sera straight in the eyes, as if daring her to react. "Can't say I'm surprised, he was looking rather wheezy when I left. But why come to me? I don't care if they put a trained monkey on the throne; it doesn't matter, in the face of my quest here." She started to pace, on the top of her mountain of rock. "The greatest weapon the dwarves ever had, lost to the very darkspawn it should be fighting! The golems were an army the surface can only dream of, pushing back the very first archdemon ever to rise. We should have had legions searching for it! And what stopped us? Politics, kings, petty squabbles? Those things are transitory. The Anvil of the Void: that's what matters. But never mind -- it's here. So close, I can feel it. I'm not about to abandon it now." She turned and pointed at Sera. "Find it for me, and I'll put your man on the throne. I don't care who it is."

Natia groaned inwardly -- she had been half-hoping that Branka could be persuaded to help her back Bhelen; with that card gone, she was back to battling with Sera.

Sera turned around to Natia, then glanced at the barred door. "I don't suppose we have much choice but to play along."

"Right." Natia stepped forward and looked up at Branka. "Why do you need our help?"

Branka's expression mellowed a little bit. "This place is riddled with traps, laid by Caridin himself. My people and I have sacrificed everything to learn their secrets, by trial and error, but these last few have so far proved beyond their meager abilities." She shook her head. "They were my people, sworn to me; they should have been glad to do it! But no, they whined every step of the way, fighting their duty. And they weren't even enough, in the end; it would have taken an army, and you can't get that many through the Deep Roads these days. So I created my own army, a darkspawn army. But they weren't intelligent enough, and so here we are." She smiled, and it was so cruel that it took Natia's breath away. "Now your only way out is forward." She gestured to a tunnel in the cavern wall.

Natia shook her head, and took a few steps in the direction of the entrance, but Sera charged toward Branka, mouth half open. "You--" She closed her eyes, shook her head, and fixed Branka with a poisoned glare. "You gave Laryn and Hespith to the darkspawn. You allowed the darkspawn to use them, to violate them-- for-- they were your people! It is your sworn duty to protect them."

Branka stared down at Sera, eyes cold and hard. "My people, yes, to command as I see fit. Don't you see that the Anvil is bigger than they are? More important than what they want? You're a leader; you should understand."

"Dammit, woman, what happened to you?" Oghren took a step back. "I remember marrying a girl, when she opened her mouth, she'd dazzle you with her brilliance. This obsession's driven you crazy!"

There was silence for a moment, and then Branka shook her head and turned away. "I am your Paragon."

"No," Sera whispered, trembling, reaching forward as if to pull Branka down from her perch. "You are not worthy, you--"

Natia grabbed Sera's arm and whirled her around, stepped close and looked in her eyes. She were pale with fury, her skin gone almost pure white. "It's too late, you can't help them. Believe me, if I could--" and Natia glanced over Sera's shoulder at Branka, bile rising at the back of her throat at the very sight of her, at her admission, at the memory of Hespith's tale of betrayal. "If killing her where she stood would bring them back, would undo their suffering, I'd do it, and to hell with Orzammar's throne." She shook her head. "But it's like she said: the only way out is forward. We'll jump through her hoops, get her the stone-cursed Anvil, and be on our way."

Sera shuddered, letting out a long slow breath. "You're right." She turned away, looking at Branka out of the corner of her eye. "And damn her ancestors, but Branka is right, too. You've seen how effective Shale is against the darkspawn. Imagine an army of Shales going up against the horde. You wanted more allies, right?" She waved her hand in the golem's direction. "I can't think of any better."

"I suppose you're right." Natia felt a stab of unease at the thought. "It certainly couldn't hurt."

Sera reached forward and gave Natia's fingers a quick squeeze. "Thank you," she said. Then she faced Branka again. "We will find your Anvil, you will crown Orzammar's king, and then you will give us a golem army to turn back the Blight, and there will be no quibbling about methods. Agreed?"

"Agreed." Branka nodded. "Good luck, Warden."

-x-

As long slogs went, the passage through Caridin's traps had not been too difficult so far-- battling the remains of Branka's darkspawn troops had been more work, if not as irritating. Sera smashed her sword into the face of the graven idol, and it collapsed to the floor with a roar, the last of the spirit warriors it had summoned disappearing. Oghren whacked the statue one more time with his axe for good measure, and then let it fall out of his hand. It clattered to the floor as he rubbed his upper arms. "Damned Paragons," he grumbled. "Should know better than to name anyone a living god; it goes to their heads!"

Blasphemy or not, Sera had a hard time arguing with the sentiment. Especially given everything Branka had said, had done, the suffering she had visited onto her people. But then-- was she any different? Two years ago, she might have given a similar speech about the subjects of House Aeducan. On the other hand, what Branka had done to Hespith, to Laryn-- she would never have thought to go so far.

Would she?

She was interrupted from the disquieting thought by a hand on her shoulder: Natia. She turned around to face the other dwarf Warden, her eyes anxious. "Are you all right? You took that last blast of energy right in the face."

Sera reached a hand to her cheek; when she pulled it away, her fingers were covered in soot. "Yeah, I'm fine. Let me just--" she pulled a cloth out of her pack and wiped off the worst of the mess, then folded it up, clean side out, to put away. "Are we ready to move on?"

"Morrigan went down, but I patched her up. She should be ready to go in a few minutes." Natia took a sip of water, then handed the skin to Sera before looking around the cavern. "I really hope this is the last of it. I'm not sure how much more of this we can take."

"Yeah." Sera took a long gulp of water before giving it back to Natia. "There's a door on the far side of the chamber; can you see where it goes?"

"You got it, boss." Natia grinned at her, then motioned Alistair to come behind as back up, the mabari falling in at her heels. They made a good team and Sera had to wonder if she hadn't been holding them back.

The door slid open and Natia slipped through. Sera stared at the empty doorway, measuring the danger by the tension in Alistair's back, then eased with him as he turned around and beckoned her over. Sera caught Oghren's eye, then the others, and they all formed up behind her, following Alistair through the door, Shale turning sideways to get its shoulders through the narrow opening. They were in yet another tunnel, and around the last bend was Natia, standing at the edge of the mouth of a cave, Dog quivering under her hand. Natia caught Sera's eye, then jerked her head toward the center of the cavern, in which stood the largest metal golem she could have imagined.

Side by side, they walked into the cave, toward the golem. As they approached, Sera heard a whirring sound, and then the creature looked up.

"Welcome, stranger. My name is Caridin." The voice boomed out from the cave, followed by the clanking of metal footsteps. Sera steeled herself with a deep breath, then walked into the cave, the others following close behind her. "Who seeks the Anvil of the Void?"

"We are Grey Wardens," Sera said, "in search of allies to defeat a new Blight. For that purpose, we need the Anvil."

The golem nodded. "You would make soldiers of metal and stone, to cast back the darkspawn and defeat the archdemon."

Sera nodded. "That, and to solidify the throne of Orzammar. Whichever candidate controls the Anvil will rule the dwarves, and can command them to our aid." Perhaps there would be no need to involve Branka as middleman after all, if she returned to Orzammar in triumph with the Anvil in hand. Perhaps there wouldn't even be any need to crown a king.

"I was afraid of that," Caridin said. "The Anvil is an abomination, a tool that enslaved thousands of souls. It must never be used again. Hear my story, and learn why."

Another delay? Another story? But Sera turned to Natia, who leaned forward in anticipation, to the other curious faces around her, and to Shale, who stepped forward. "Yes, tell us," Shale said.

The golem turned toward Shale. "Shale? Is that truly you?"

Shale took a step back. If it were possible for it to look surprised, Sera would have said it was. "You know me?"

"You were one of the very first," the other golem replied. "But I have gotten ahead of myself. As I have said, I am Caridin. I created the process for making golems, but no smith, however powerful, can create life. A living dwarf forms the core of every golem."

Natia gasped, and a yawning hole opened in the pit of Sera's stomach. Were there no end to the horrors to be found on this journey?

"That's terrible!" Natia cried.

"A high price to pay," Caridin agreed. "But we were desperate, near to overrun by darkspawn. And we took only volunteers at first. You, Shale, were among them."

"Me?" Shale lifted a hand to its chest. "I-- was a dwarf?"

"Yes. The woman Shayle, of House Cadash. One of the finest warriors that house has ever seen."

"But--" Shale stepped away, shaking its head-- her head. "I was a dwarf? A woman? I have no memory of this, I--"

"I will help you to remember," Caridin said. "But first, you must hear the rest of my tale. As I said, at first we only used volunteers, but King Volor became greedy. Soon, he pressed others into service: casteless, criminals, his political enemies." His gaze fell in Natia's direction -- surely he had seen her brand -- and she looked back up at him, her horror transmuting into determination. "When I objected, he forced me onto the Anvil. It took feeling the hammer's blow myself to make me realize the enormity of my crimes."

"A fitting punishment," Natia said, quietly.

"Aye." Caridin sighed and looked away. "My apprentices were able to fashion this body for me, but they could not create a control rod; I retained my mind. And so I gathered the Anvil and the last of the golems and shut them up here, where at least they could cause no more harm."

"Why not destroy it?" Alistair asked. "If it's so important that it never be used again."

Caridin swung around to look at him. "It is worked into the design; no golem can touch it. I need your help to destroy it. Please, Grey Wardens. Will you help me?"

"No!" The shout rang out from the cave entrance as Branka ran inside. "The Anvil is mine!"

Natia whirled around, fire in her eyes. "Didn't you hear him? The Anvil enslaves living souls. We have to destroy it."

"But just think of it!" Branka dismissed Natia with a haughty glare and turned on Sera. "The army you could raise against the Blight. Orzammar restored to our former glory! Is this what should remain of our empire? Crumbling tunnels filled with darkspawn spume? We could use the Anvil to reclaim it all."

"Look at yourself!" Oghren shook his head. "Can't you see how wrong this is?"

Branka did not spare any attention for him; instead her mad eyes stayed focused on Sera, her words pounding into Sera's brain. The Blight ended; Orzammar restored. Branka could not have picked anything that would have tempted her more. Peace, and expansion, and the dwarves regaining their former glory, herself and the Grey Wardens to thank...

Then she looked at Natia, at her expression of fury and fear. "Casteless, criminals, political enemies." She saw Natia's friends and family marched to the Anvil, every prisoner in the dungeons, surface dwarves dragged back from exile. She thought of Shayle of House Cadash, a brave warrior left to rot in the Deep Roads for centuries, then enslaved to serve Wilhelm's every whim. And Sera looked back at Branka, and she met her determined eyes with a level stare.

"No," she said. "No. The price is too high. Caridin is right. The Anvil must be destroyed."

Behind her, Sera heard Caridin lower his head. "Thank you. You humble me with your compassion."

"We'll see about that!" Branka sneered at Caridin. "You aren't the only master smith here. Golems, to me!" And she whipped out a control rod, gleaming in the red light of the lava.

"A control rod!" Caridin reeled back as four of the golems tromped to Branka's side. "Help me, my friend. I cannot stop her alone!"

"Never fear, my Paragon," Sera said, metal singing against metal as she pulled her sword from its sheath. "We will stop her together." She took a quick inventory of her team: Shale had already closed with one of the golems and was pounding it in the head with her fists; Morrigan's hands were up and glowing blue with the first volley of ice; Leliana had taken the high ground to pepper the field with her arrows; Alistair, Natia, and the mabari gathered around another golem to harry it from all sides.

That left only Oghren, whose eyes were focused on the floor. He shook his head with a deep sigh, wracked with pain, and when he looked up at her, his face was etched with sorrow. "Let's do this, Warden," he said. "I've got the last golem. You... do what has to be done."

And then he pulled his axe free and charged the metal golem with a scream of fury, the blade swinging in a circle over his head, leaving Sera to face off with Branka. They circled each other, heedless of the shouting and the thudding of blades against metal and stone, or the ground shuddering beneath their feet. Branka carried a sword and a high-quality shield; she feinted with the shield, lunging forward. Sera held her ground, but there was no opening to press her own attack. She could be patient. Gorim had been a shield man as well, and they had sparred together, many long hours; she knew how to wait him out, and Branka would surely tire as well, if she let her take the lead.

"You are a fool," Branka spat. "You could have regained your place in Orzammar, become a queen remembered for a thousand years!"

"I am a Grey Warden; I have renounced titles and thrones," Sera replied. "And even if I hadn't, I would not want a legacy built on slavery." She reached out with her sword, testing the air, and Branka raised her shield to block the blow. "I've seen what power does to people. I want no part of it, anymore." As she spoke the words, she realized they were true. It had taken betrayal, exile, and months of watching abuses to learn the lesson, but it was learned. She had no desire for the throne, for power, for revenge. She would serve the Grey Wardens to the best of her ability, but someone else could be in control.

Branka narrowed her eyes. "Aeducans! All the same, too noble and stoic for your own good."

"You should meet my brother," Sera countered. Branka lashed out with her sword, and Sera swung her own back, the blades meeting in midair. She leaned forward, pressing the blades together, testing Branka's strength as she pushed back. Could she knock Branka over? Branka's arms wobbled but held steady, and her stance was firm; Sera let off the pressure suddenly, and Branka reeled forward but kept her feet. They began the dance again, circling in the other direction, each waiting for the other to make a mistake. Sera wondered how the others were faring, but she could not spare a moment to check: her eyes were focused on Branka, the opponent in front of her the only reality, the battle cries of her companions relegated to little more than background noise. Then the whole battleground shuddered with the force of a golem falling over, toppling to the ground, and Branka looked away, eyes widening with anger at the loss of her allies -- and that was the opening Sera needed. She charged forward, and remembering Jarvia, she crashed the pommel of the sword against Branka's temple; seconds later, Natia was there, two blades buried up to their hilts in Branka's back.

Without a word, Branka pitched forward, instantly dead.

Sera stepped back, then looked up at Natia. "Nice work," she said.

"You too," Natia replied.

Then they both stepped back as Oghren approached, slowly. He laid the axe on the ground and knelt by Branka's side, fingering one of her hair tufts.

A lump formed in Sera's throat, but it was Natia who laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry, Oghren."

"Had to be done," Oghren replied, voice thick through a closing throat. He lowered his head for a moment, then walked away. Natia and Sera exchanged a look, and then the two of them approached Caridin together.

"Thank you, again," Caridin said. "If there is any favor I can grant you before we destroy the Anvil, all you need to do it name it."

"Without Branka or the Anvil, we still need a king," Natia said. "We thought to use Branka's influence as a Paragon, but--"

"I am also a Paragon," Caridin said, "as well as a smith. I will make a crown, my last smithing job, and you will use it to crown your king and collect your allies."

"Sounds like a plan." Natia glanced at Sera, then back at Caridin. "Do you have a choice for the throne?"

Caridin shook his head. "I cared little for dwarven politics even when I still knew the players. I trust your judgment to put the right candidate on the throne."

Natia deflated a bit as she turned to Sera. "Then I guess we're back to square one, aren't we."

Sera shook her head. "No. I-- I've had the time to do a lot of thinking, here in the Deep Roads. And I think-- you are right. Orzammar needs to move forward, not spend so much time dreaming about our glorious past. And much as it pains me to admit it, Harrowmont is not the man for that job. I will follow your lead. We will put Bhelen on the throne."

Natia opened her mouth, then closed it. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." Sera looked up at Caridin. "We're ready."

Chapter Text

After the deed was done, Sera met Natia and Alistair outside the Assembly chambers. ("I understand why you must crown him, but I would rather not have to watch, if you don't mind." Natia had understood.)

"He executed Lord Harrowmont on the spot." Natia shook her head. "I'm not sure how I feel about that."

Sera shrugged, and they walked down the streets of the Diamond Quarter. "At least we saved him from the Anvil. I shudder to think how either of them would have used it." Natia nodded. "Say goodbye to your sister, and then let's get out of this damned place."

---

They left immediately for Haven, where snow already dusted the ground; as they traveled, Sera slowly ceded control of the team to Natia, deferring to her judgment, stepping back to let her take the lead. By the time they returned to Redcliffe with the Sacred Ashes, it already seemed natural for Natia to be in charge -- and that she would spend her nights in Alistair's tent.

---

Arl Eamon stood in his grand hall, shaky but alive, his hand resting a bit heavy on his brother's shoulder, his arm curled protectively around his son.

Natia stepped forward, knelt before him, head bowed. "I am sorry for your loss, my lord. And sorry that we did not do more to prevent it."

"I grieve for Isolde." Eamon lowered his head. "But still, I thank you for your service to me and my people. Even more lives could have been lost, had you not acted as you did. For your services, I name you both Champions of Redcliffe." He looked past them both, at Alistair, who blanched beneath his helm. "And now, we must speak of the days to come."

---

"You need a strong ruler. You need me." Her case made, Anora stepped back and crossed her arms with a decisive nod.

Sera looked at Natia. "She's a commoner," she said under her breath. "An upstart. Arl Eamon isn't going to like it."

Natia looked back at Sera, a slow smile spreading over her face. "Good enough for me."

---

"The Blight is coming and you should go." Sera took Gorim's hand. "Please. Keep yourself and your wife and your son safe. Get out of this place."

Gorim lowered his head, then looked back up at her, eyes brimming. "You know, that if I could--"

"I know." Sera kissed him gently on the cheek. "And I forgive you."

---

"Well, that went well, all things considered," Alistair said as the door to the Landsmeet closed behind them. "Anora kept her word, the Grey Wardens have the support they need, Loghain is dead, and I don't have to be king."

Natia looped her hand through his elbow. "You would have made a good king. But you'll be an even better Grey Warden."

He turned and caught her chin in his fingers. "And I get to stay with you. That's the best part." And without heed of who might be watching, he leaned down and kissed her, grazing her nose with his lips on the way down.

---

Sera disappeared into her bedchamber alone as Natia followed Alistair into the room they shared. He lay down on the bed, and she nestled into his side. She said nothing, and neither did he, but she knew what was on his mind: Riordan's revelation. To kill the archdemon and stop the Blight, one of them would have to die. The thought left her shaken, her insides quivering with dread, but it came with a peculiar sense of rightness, as if a part of her had always known. One life, sacrificed for the salvation of Thedas. It was a fair price, but still a bitter one. After everything they had gone through, for it to end like that... She burrowed her face into his chest, and he brought his arms tightly around her.

Then the stillness was broken by shouting through the half-open door; Natia leaned out to peer into the hallway and she saw Morrigan storming past, head down. Sera ran after her, then stopped, just outside their room. Natia exchanged a look with Alistair, then went to the doorway. "Is everything all right?"

Sera kept staring down the hall, her fingers flexing into fists and then splaying outward. Then she looked at Natia and nodded. "Just fine."

---

Morrigan did not reappear the next morning, nor on the march to Denerim, nor at the battle for the front gates. Natia could have burst with curiosity, but something in Sera's expression stopped her from asking where the witch had gone. She had asked Oghren, Leliana, and the Legion troops to guard the gate, as the three Grey Wardens sought out the archdemon, faithful Dog at their heels. And now they were here, at the top of Fort Drakon, the fiend roaring its last. Their allies had done their work: knights, dwarves, elves, Templars, leaving only the final blow to end the blight. And now Natia paused. She was the leader, it was her responsibility, she was ready -- but she saw determination in Alistair's eyes.

"No," he said. "I won't let you."

"I have to," she said, reaching up to touch his face. "It's my duty."

"No. It's mine." And before either of them could say a word more, Sera snatched up her sword and ran for the archdemon, screaming a battle cry.

"No!" Natia cried, lunging forward to stop her, but Alistair held her back, strong arms pinioning around her shoulders.

"She wants to," he murmured, his voice thick. "Let her do this one last thing."

Natia blinked through her blurring eyes, forcing herself not to look away as Sera sliced the archdemon's neck open from sternum to chin, both of them screaming; then she leapt on the demon's back and thrust the blade through its spine, severing the head from the body. And they both exploded into blue light, a beacon piercing the sky, the power of it knocking Alistair and Natia off their feet, Sera's soul twining with the archdemon's to take it out of the world, leaving the rest of them safe from harm.

---

Sera's body lay in state on the stone pyre. She would not be burned or buried; like the other four Grey Wardens to make the ultimate sacrifice, she would be interred in a tomb at Weisshaupt Fortress. Fitting, for a dwarf to be returned to those ancient stones.

The speeches were done, the boons granted, and soon the victory parade would begin, but for now Natia stood by Sera's side, fingering the cuff of her gauntlet. She didn't feel very victorious right now. "I'm sorry," she said, leaning over the ear of her rival, her sister, her friend. "I wish--"

Alistair's hand fell on her shoulder. "She did it for you," he said. "For all of us."

"I know." She stepped back into Alistair's embrace. "I hope I can be worthy of it."

"You will be." Alistair kissed the top of her head. "Come on, let's go meet your adoring public."