Chapter 1: Freedom
The Circle Tower
Lake Calenhad, Ferelden
She stumbled, the vibrations through the Tower becoming more violent. The clash of steel and the thunder of magic in the floors above no longer seemed so muffled. She threw herself into the stairwell, losing her footing in a pool of gore. She felt the slick of blood on her hands, but her fear drove her to her feet.
She reached the library, her breath heaving from her lungs. Her eyes darted, as fast as the frenzied thoughts in her mind as she sought a way to freedom. She averted her gaze from the corpses that littered the floor, not wanting to notice familiar faces scattered between the bodies of demons. She made it only as far as a table before she ducked beneath the heavy frame.
Armour clad men and women stomped past, a voice calling from the front, 'this floor is clear, head to the next and spread out. Exterminate all abominations.'
She held her breath, watching as steel-clad feet filtered past her vision. One pair remained, motionless. The fighting had darkened the room, most of the lanterns and candles snuffed out in the skirmish. She slowly clamped her hands over her mouth, hoping her dark robes would obscure her into shadows.
She squashed the panic that rose inside her as he took a step towards her, but he faltered when screams echoed in the stairwell. He turned, sprinting in the direction of the Templar forces. She waited only long enough for him to get out of sight before she sprinted out from under the table and scooped up the nearest staff, ignoring the blood that soaked the grip.
She sprinted through the library, almost sliding into another pool of gore. Her thoughts raced, her ears straining for the sound of armour, but the fighting seemed to be behind her now. She focused on her goal, knowing she neared the basement stairs, but she was forced to duck into the shadows once more. She hid in the nearest room, frustration and panic churning in her mind.
She only heard one set of armoured footsteps this time, but others accompanied the steady strides. She peeked through the gap in the door, staying low as she watched a tall, heavily armoured soldier pass with a sword and shield. She could not see his face behind his helmet, but she could tell that he was broad and strong: the weight of his heavy armour did not slow his determined steps. He was not clad in the familiar style of the Templars, but his armour, shield, and blade were splattered with blood.
Were there more demons on this level?
She could not be sure, but the new group had certainly been fighting.
'We must hurry,' a voice called, and a face she recognised passed. She hardly knew the older mage, despite their confinement in such close quarters, but she knew her name.
Two more mages followed. One wore a ragged belt-lined skirt, her slim figure bared around the dark fabric that draped from her neck. Her dark hair shone in the firelight, her staff at the ready. Beside her was another mage, Lilara, who had been recruited by the Grey Wardens shortly after her Harrowing. Her pale hair was tied in her customary bun, a few strands escaping. As an apprentice, her features had been soft. Now, she wore a determined glare, but it did not mask her beauty.
Pieces fell into place quickly. Demons were loose in the Tower, and the Grey Wardens were here to clean house. She did not want to believe that fellow mages would be prepared to wipe out their kind, their friends, but she knew the Templars all too well. They would not be above manipulation or base threats.
She did not dare move until their footfalls disappeared towards the sounds of battle. She made her way to the basement door; the normal magical barriers were damaged, the Tower slowly crumbling in places from the battle that had raged in the room, from the battle that still raged above. She heaved at the door, the hinges grinding as she gained purchase. The gap was small, but her petite frame slid through easily. Although she was only an apprentice, she knew exactly what she sought.
What they stole from me.
All the magic barriers that should have hindered her progress were broken or fractured enough for her to destroy. She dared to hope as she reached the room she had dreamed of for so many years. In the shelves, shining among the rest, was her goal.
As she reached to grasp the phial, she paused, waiting for some invisible force to fling her backwards, but she met with no resistance. Her fingers grasped the small glass phial, the phylactery glowing brighter in her hand, blood recognising blood. She reached into her pocket, retrieving a length of leather cord. She secured the phylactery to it, then deftly tied the cord around her neck, tucking the phial and leather beneath her robes.
She gripped the staff once again, sprinting back up the stairs. Little stood between her and her escape now, and again she let herself feel hope. Her feet carried her on the route she had planned for months, her lungs burning with effort. She rushed through a door, then another, her goal coming into sight.
As she reached for the handle a heavy force crashed into her side. She slammed into the stone floor with a broken cry, something cracking inside her at the force of her landing, blistering pain searing her right side. She gasped in a pained breath, looking up to see the rage demon approaching her.
Without a thought, she threw her staff up. Lighting cracked above, and the demon exploded, spattering her with gore. She stared at the spot where it had been, her mind blank with fear until she felt another sharp stab of pain. She held her side, her ribs aching as she stood. She gripped the staff for support, her hand finally touching the large handle of the external door that she had dreamed of grasping so many times before. The turn was the most satisfying movement she could remember, a gust of fresh air filling her lungs as she heaved the heavy door open. She stumbled into the light. Her vision blurred, the pain in her ribs spiking as she stepped onto the bridge.
Dark spots danced in her vision, and she stumbled forward, barely keeping herself upright. Despair rocked her. She had never thought she would make it so far, and now she had, her bruised and broken body was failing her.
She gripped the stone support of the bridge, her blood encrusted hand leaving a blotchy print. She gasped desperately for air, but each breath was more agonising than the last. No breath seemed to sate her lungs, and the dark spots spread. The staff fell from her grasp and she reached for it on instinct, losing her balance. She tried to catch herself but her weakened limbs betrayed her and she followed her staff, plummeting into the cold embrace of Lake Calenhad.
A stab of pain woke her. Her teeth chattered loudly, the sound almost deafening. She dragged her eyes open, wincing, grit from the lake scratching beneath her eyelids. She rose on shaking arms, dragging herself from the water only to collapse on the muddy shoreline. Her breaths came in sharp gasps, her body heaving, bringing up the water she had swallowed. A new wave of agony washed over her exhausted body as she wretched. She knew she had to have at least one broken rib, and by the throbbing in her hand and wrist, her damaged ribs were not her only concern.
She dipped her hand back into the water, the remains of the blood washing away. Dark splotches were slowly blooming on her wrist.
The cold water probably helped, she thought wryly, not daring to flex her fingers.
She slowly knelt at the edge of the water, washing her face. Some of the grit cleared from her eyes, and although it was painful, she finally settled her breathing. A dark cloud surrounded the Tower, the sky above Lake Calenhad darkened by the night of terror. Even on the shore, she thought she could still hear screaming from within, her mind flashing to recall the bodies that littered the floors in the tower. A strange calm settled over her. The horrors within had finally given her the chance she had waited for, the chance she had grown more desperate for with each passing day.
She looked at her surroundings, hoping to see the staff washed up on shore. When she made it to her feet, she staggered along the edge, finding it a short distance away. She had to reach the docks. Traders travelled nearby regularly, the Circle Tower part of their standard route, and with their regular patterns, one should be at the docks now, waiting for daylight. She could hide in a cart, and whether she ended up in Redcliffe, Orzammar, or Orlais, she didn't care. She needed to get as far away from the Tower as possible, as fast as possible.
She moved as quickly as she could. The Templars were occupied in the Tower, but she had no way to know if one remained at the docks as a guard. The frigid wind chilled her to her bones in her soaked robes, but a renewed rush of hope spurred her on. She would hide behind The Spoiled Princess, watching for the trader to return to his cart. The sun would rise soon. Once her unwitting smuggler strapped the horses and climbed on, their focus on the road ahead, she would climb into the back.
As she neared the Inn, a voice called out behind her. She turned, knowing that in her drenched robes, an outright lie would fail her.
A Templar approached. She felt her veins fill with icy fear, her grip on her staff tightening.
'You, what are you doing here?'
His hand gripped the hilt of his blade. Although he moved slowly, the motion almost casual, the intent was clear. Carroll wasn't the brightest Templar in the lot, but a Templar was still her most dangerous adversary.
'The Tower is under attack. The Grey Wardens are inside now,' she said, letting her voice waver with fear, 'I got out, but I'm hurt. I fell from the bridge.'
'A rage demon. I think it broke my ribs.'
'There are demons in the tower?'
She heard the soft sound of his blade rising a fraction from the sheath. Her gaze darted down, eyeing the glint of metal he revealed.
'Yes, in the upper levels. I was on the second floor with a friend. I hid in a room and then got out through the library.'
'And where is First Enchanter Irving?'
'He was in the higher levels. I… I have no idea if he is alive, but he is a powerful mage.'
'Powerful mages still fall.'
'What do you mean? The First Enchanter will be able to make it out, won't he?'
'I have seen even the strongest of mages fall to the embrace of demons. I know you, elf. You're only an apprentice. If there are demons, as you say, the Templars will be preparing to purge the Tower.'
Her grip tightened on the staff. 'I'm not in the Tower.'
'You will return there. I cannot let you leave.'
'I'm not going back, nor will I be the first mage murdered in the name of the Right of Annulment.'
Carroll pulled his blade, but her fear made her faster. Fire crept from the Templar's armour, engulfing him in white hot flames. He screamed, his blade clattering to on the solid earth, his body landing beside it with a heavy thud.
She moved quickly. There was no time to strap the cart herself, and it would slow her down. She limped to the gate behind the Inn, coaxing a richly coloured black mare over. Her grooming marked her as a Templar horse. She would be fast and strong.
The horse eyed her wearily as she unlatched the gate and approached, but soft strokes down the mare's nose calmed her. She found the standard Templar gear and grabbed the leather harness. The horse protested with a huff as she strapped it, but it did not fight, even when she set the saddle on its back. Using the fence as a ladder, she eased herself up, gently soothing the mare as it whinnied.
'It's ok, you take care of me, and I'll take care of you.'
She gripped the reigns, riding into the night and away from the Circle of Magi.
I hope you enjoyed the first chapter of The Warden's Rose.
Thank you for reading.
Chapter 2: Sanctuary
Two Years Later
The Frostback Mountains
Ice clung to her eyelashes, her breath frosting through the cloth she wore over her nose and mouth. The trek down the mountain had been difficult but rewarding; her bartering had earned her a hefty chunk of dear, enough to last a few weeks if she portioned it carefully. She heaved the carcas behind her, the cart making the heavy lifting easier. Even though she had only had Briella for a few months, she missed the mare dearly. The Frostback Mountains were no place for a horse without a stable, though. She had ensured that her horse, though stolen, went to a safe house where her nature and strength would be appreciated, and, thanks to clever bartering, Rokara still had much of the coin she earned from the trade.
She reached the cave and quickly sliced the deer meat into smaller pieces, hanging it for smoking. The trader had delivered on their end, supplying her with the pre-salted meat as she had requested, allowing her to travel whenever she needed without relying on a fresh kill.
She had moved around frequently during her time in the mountains, and she had only occupied this cave for a few days. She would move again soon. Traders she had talked to mentioned that Templars were on the move nearby, searching for any apostate mages in the area. In the coming weeks, they would march over the border to Orlais.
For now, she focused on preparing. Her supply of kindling was low, and if she were to have a fire by the end of the week, she would need to bring some inside to thaw and dry.
She set out, bundling the sticks with a woven cord as she went. She was almost ready to head back to the cave when she heard the unmistakable crack of wood and frozen leaves nearby.
Probably an animal, she reasoned. Despite the frigid conditions, many beasts roamed the mountains. Judging by the sudden hard edge to the cold, a blizzard was brewing. Any animal would be seeking shelter, and she would have to do the same.
Another crack sounded closer this time. She noted her surroundings, dropping low to cover her kindling, knowing she would be able to return to it later. She crouched as she moved, zigzagging back to the cave entrance. Still, she heard the occasional sound of breaking sticks, her heartbeat spiking with each noise.
There were predators in the mountains, wolves and bears among the worse she had encountered during her time in hiding. She could protect herself with her staff, but it was safer to be in the cave. The entrance was a bottleneck, and from a shelf high above the ground, she could easily defend herself.
She climbed into the cave, then clambered onto the rocky shelf within and lay low with her staff, concealed by height and darkness. Her ears strained, listening for the sound of the padded steps of a bear or wolf. Instead, she heard the scrape of heavy plate and the clomp of weighted footsteps, the unmistakeable sound of a Templar.
After the events at the Circle Tower mages who showed even the faintest signs of rebellion would have been marked as dangerous and assumed to be blood mages. Any who had escaped, as she had, would be deemed apostates. When the fighting had stopped, and after the Right was performed, Knight-Commander Greagoir would have catalogued the phylacteries, and noted those that were missing. Her name was on that list, her phylactery tucked safely beneath her tunic. A few Templars had come close to finding her, but none had so far succeeded or lived to tell about her location.
She slowed her breathing, watching the entrance of the cave as the steps became louder. A tall figure appeared, his shining armour covered in a dusting of snow. She could hear his steady breaths, warm puffs of misted air obscured his face as he braced his hands on his knees. He caught his breath for a moment, dumped the pack he carried, then hefted his shield from his back to lean it against the rock wall.
He walked further in, looking around his shelter. Her belongings were hidden further inside the cave, this room acting as a defendable entrance. There was no trace of her here, and it appeared to be an empty cave.
From her vantage point, she could not see his face beneath the winged helmet. He didn't wear Templar armour but he carried himself just the same as all the Templars she had seen at the Tower, his back straight, shoulders back, an air of strength and superiority that grated her nerves.
'Bloody blizzards,' he cursed, kicking a nearby rock, his back to her, 'I hate these mountains.'
In his distraction, Rokara slid down from the ledge. From the darkened corner, she watched him. If she were to stand beside him, he would tower over her; she would not be as tall as his shoulders without standing on her toes. Even though his armour accentuated his frame, without it, he would still be broad. He pulled his helmet off his head, revealing neatly trimmed brown hair with soft streaks of blonde scattered through it, the front spiked up with sweat from his trek. His steps were aggravated, impatient, so different from the controlled, calculated actions of the Templars she had known in the Tower, but it did not mean she would trust him.
She held the staff out, placing it gently against the back of his neck. He stiffened at the contact of wood to flesh, his whole body rigid.
'Pick up your shield and bag. Walk away.'
He slowly raised his hands at his sides, fingers splayed. 'I'm sorry, I didn't realise anyone was here. I got caught in–'
'Last. Chance,' she said, 'leave.'
Alistair's neck bristled where the staff touched his skin, the wood sharp against his cold flesh. Shivers crept down his spine, but he remained still; he could reach for his sword, but only if he needed to.
'I was travelling when the blizzard came. I am just seeking shelter.'
The staff pressed harder against his neck. 'Liar.'
He dropped low, scooping up his shield and drawing his sword in a smooth and practised motion. He spun to face his attacker but was forced to defend as an arcane bolt shot towards him. It ricocheted off his shield, dancing around the small cave before it dissipated with a fizz of magic.
He dared to peek above the shield and assess his attacker. His assailant's shoulders heaved beneath the large hooded cloack. By its soft grey and white colouring, he guessed that it was made from wolf fur. The only part of their face he could see were their eyes, and they seemed to glow in the darkened cave, the bright gaze causing him to pause in his analysis. He shook himself mentally, continuing his assessment, noting the enchanter's staff they carried, one much like that used by an old companion.
'You'll never take me back,' she said. Although the wrappings around her face muffled her voice, he could hear the distinct feminine ring in her vicious tone.
'I don't understand-'
'I'll die before I go back!'
'Stop!' Alistair yelled, defending himself from another bolt, 'I mean you no harm!'
He tried to speak, but she hit him with a barrage of spells. His shield shook under the assault and he grit his teeth, arm aching at the force her magic. A final bolt hit, the metal squeaking and cracking as the temperature dropped. He dropped his shield, shards of ice threatening to spread up his arm as it froze. He raised his sword before him, his shield discarded and useless at his feet. He watched as fire circled her staff: she meant to burn him. Without his shield, he had to hope that his armour would be enough.
'Please! I am not a Templar; I'm a Grey Warden!'
At the words she paused, the flame flickering around her staff. 'A Warden?'
'Yes, a Warden,' he said hurriedly, lowering his sword enough to suggest he was willing to end the confrontation, 'my name is Alistair. I've travelled from Redcliffe. I promise you; I have been through this way before seeking Orzammar. I was on the Imperial Highway when the blizzard swept over, but I remembered the location of this cave. I only seek shelter.'
She eyed him carefully. Her posture softened - barely - as she assessed him anew. 'You may stay here until the blizzard passes, but if I believe you have lied to me, I will not hesitate to kill you.'
The icy glare he received chilled his blood more than the famed winter gusts of the Frostback Mountains.
He offered a nervous smile. 'Sorry, inappropriate timing.'
She ignored him, turning on her heel as she said, 'follow me.'
Alistair breathed a heavy sigh of relief, muttering a silent prayer before he gathered his gear and followed her deeper into the cave. He jogged to catch up to her swift strides.
'What's your name?' he asked, nearly tripping on a rock.
In the main chamber of the cave, Rokara rekindled the fire, stoking it until a warm glow filled the room. She lit a couple of lanterns, illuminating the moderate space, heat slowly diffusing the clammy cold of the cave.
'There is room over there for you to lay out a mat,' she said as she leant her staff against the wall, keeping it within reach.
Alistair dropped his equipment, but he dared not remove his armour yet. This mage was too unpredictable, and he could feel her anger churning in the room.
'Why did you think I was a Templar?' he asked as he perched himself on a flat rock, his sword within reach.
'I will give you the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that you are not stupid Warden,' she said as she slid the hood from her head, revealing fiery-red hair, 'I am a mage living in a mountain cave. It is not a leap to imagine that I am an apostate. Templars have hunted me before, and I expect they will again.'
She slid the thickly furred cloak from her shoulders, revealing slender arms, her ill-fitted shirt hanging from her petite frame.
'If you're an apostate, where would I take you back to?'
She eyed him carefully over the cloth wrap that covered her mouth and nose. 'You ask many questions,' she said, removing her gloves.
'I'm sorry, I don't mean to pry.'
She sighed. 'To the Circle Tower at Lake Calenhad, Warden. You may not be a Templar, but I know what the Grey Wardens did when demons overran the mages.'
He felt a flash of anger at her suggestion, knowing she was referring to the Right of Annulment. 'You're talking about the Broken Circle. I would never have accepted the Templar's plan, their desire to… to murder everyone without thought,' he said, his fists clenching on his knees, 'the whole concept of the Right is sickening. My best friend was a mage, and we sided with the mages in the Tower. We saved everyone we could save.'
She stared at him for a moment, a curious light in her gaze. 'You were there?'
'Yes. My companions and I fought to the top of the Tower and destroyed the demons and… we were too late to save them all.'
'I saw you before you entered the library. I was sure you were going to clear out the Tower. You were with Wynne and two other mages.'
A small smile curled his lips. 'Even if I were that way inclined, Wynne would have killed me if I had tried.'
'And the other two mages?
'Morrigan, a Witch of the Wilds. I didn't like her much, but she is a fierce woman. Powerful, but surprisingly willing to help. And–'
'Lilara,' Rokara said. Alistair looked up at her, as she continued, 'she came to the Circle the year before me. I knew her before she was a Warden.'
He glanced down to stare at his gloved hands, but she saw moisture glisten in his eyes. He blinked hard, trying to conceal the tears before they could fall.
'Lilara… was my best friend. I know what the Tower was like,' he whispered, 'Mages can be scary, sure, but so can everyone. I don't care if you're an apostate. The mere willingness to allow me to stay here when you're obviously already scared tells me that your past scars you, but that deep down, you're good.'
Her anger faltered at his words. 'Thank you.'
He looked up. Slender hands unwrapped the fabric that protected her face and ears. Her hair fell around her cheeks, hanging past her shoulders, but it did not hide her delicate features. In the light of the fire, he could see that her eyes were golden: they sparkled like molten metal, the light of the fire dancing within them. She had high, sharp cheekbones and an elegant nose with a delicate point. Her lips were a rich honey brown tinged with a blush of pink. He found himself mesmerised for a moment as she crouched beside the fire, placing another log atop the pile.
She brushed her hands off, warming them for a moment before she reached up, sweeping her hair behind her pointed ears.
'You're an elf.'
She eyed him sharply. 'And you're a human.'
His cheeks flushed. 'I'm sorry, I didn't mean– I was just…'
'It's ok,' she said, 'I'm used to it.'
He wrung his hands together. 'I'm sorry, I've not encountered many elven mages. It just made me think of the Circle again. My friend, she was a human, a noble at that. The things she endured there… I imagine you experienced worse.'
She smiled softly. 'Possibly. Everyone experiences the Circle differently. Mine was indeed a poor experience.'
'How so?' His eyes widened at his words and he rushed to add, 'if you don't mind me asking, that is.'
'When I arrived, they told me I was free, that they'd saved me from a life of servitude, but that was never true. Although strictly speaking, being a mage in the Circle is not slavery, the reality is that you are no more than a prisoner, placated with better food and lodgings. If you're lucky.'
'I know,' he said, quickly adding, 'vicariously, I mean.'
She stood, smiling again at his embarrassment, finding his blushing endearing. 'Tell me, what are you doing out here alone? Wardens usually travel together, don't they?'
'Usually, yes, but after the Blight had ended, I wanted to travel. I spent a long time in Redcliffe rebuilding, but Arl Eamon had everything under control within a year. I thought I could be of more use elsewhere.'
'So to where are you travelling now?'
'Orzammar. I have friends there. They wrote to me while I was in Redcliffe requesting that I return to the city. The dwarves have been making headway in the Deep Roads regaining some of the lost Thaigs.'
'An adventure,' she said. She untied a cloth bag, pulling some bread out of it. Hanging over the fire on a frame were strips of freshly smoked meat. The smell had taunted Alistair when he had arrived, but he thought it impolite to request food from her.
She grabbed a generous strip from a hook, breaking it in half. She approached him, offering him half of the smoked deer and half of the loaf. 'You look hungry,' she said, 'I saw you glancing at the food as soon as you walked in.'
He smiled sheepishly. 'Thank you.'
Even sitting down, he was almost as tall as her. Close up; she finally took in his appearance. He had soft lines on his face, laughter lines that formed light creases around his eyes. His features were refined, noble, almost, with a straight nose, defined cheekbones, and a strong jaw dusted with stubble. His full lips looked firm, but when he smiled at her, they softened. His dark eyes stared up at her as he took the bread from her hand.
She broke away first, moving to a crate. She dug out a heavy fur and took it to him. 'You'll need this.'
'Because we're in the Frostback Mountains, in winter. It's icy, there's a blizzard outside, and I can't imagine that you sleep in a full set of heavy armour. The fire will keep us warm for most of the night, but if neither of us wakes to tend to it, it will burn down, and it will be freezing in here come morning.'
'Right, fair point,' he said, accepting the fur. He ran his fingers over the pelt, noting how thick and heavy it was. 'Is this from a bear?'
'Did you buy it?'
'No, I killed it, just like I killed the wolves to make this,' she said, directing his eyes to her cloak, 'as you've probably noticed, it's cold up here. I certainly wasn't going to freeze to death after I escaped the Tower.'
'I can't imagine it was easy to fight a bear by yourself.'
'To be honest, it was harder to kill it without singing the fur than to kill it at all,' she said with a small smirk as she settled on the mat opposite from him, the fire flickering between them.
He found himself smirking too. 'May I ask one more question?'
'You may, but I won't promise to answer it.'
'If you were trying to escape, why did you stay so close to Lake Calenhad?'
She considered how to answer such a question, rolling it over in her mind for a moment before she said, 'when I was eight, I was taken to the Tower. Not by choice. Someone I trusted, a new Templar, kidnapped me. I will not leave Ferelden until I take the life of the man who took mine,' she said, 'he is somewhere nearby, close to the border between Ferelden and Orlais, which is why I have remained in the Frostback Mountains.'
'Who was it?'
'That is none of your concern,' she said as she doused the lanterns in the room. She lay down on her mat, spreading the thick fur coat over herself, 'I suggest you get some rest.'
She propped herself up on her elbow to look at him. 'Yes?'
'Why don't you come with me to Orzammar? The Templar you seek... if he is in the area, the traders there may have heard something. Templars tend to stand out.'
'As do mages.'
'Not when travelling with me. My best friend was a mage, remember? We helped the dwarves when we were last in the city. They are not perfect, but they are also much more accepting of mages than they used to be. You'll be safe, I promise.'
'That's quite an oath to make.'
A smile lit his lips. 'It's a Grey Warden thing. You can always count on us to keep them.'
She stared at him for a moment, her gaze assessing, but the longer she held his dark eyes with hers, the more her stomach fluttered.
'Okay, Alistair, I'll come with you.'
His smile brightened, and she felt her stomach flutter at the boyish grin.
'Get some rest,' she said, tucking herself beneath the fur once more, 'it seems that we've got a long trek ahead of us.'
She rolled to her side, facing away from him. He likely wouldn't appreciate an elf watching him undress, but she found herself listening to him shed his armour. She heard the scrape of metal and the creak of leather straps, and then the rustle of the bear skin as he settled onto his mat.
She listened to the sounds of the fire. Over the crackling, she could hear his breath deepen in sleep. She dared to peek over her shoulder. His back was to her; as she suspected, his shoulders were broad, and the fur that he had draped over himself only just reached the ground. When he shifted, she saw his muscles flex beneath the shirt that seemed too tight on his shoulders, almost stretched to the point of tearing.
She turned back over, biting her lip, knowing she shouldn't gaze upon him. As she drifted off to sleep, she had no idea that he dared to glance over at her.
Alistair struggled to sleep. After much fidgeting, he rolled to face her, propping himself up on his elbow. It felt strange to watch someone he barely knew, but curiosity tugged at his nerves. He believed that she suspected he would judge her desire for revenge, but instead, he had more questions: who was this man who betrayed her? What was her life like growing up, for her to be taken to the Tower and to fear it? How was she treated at the Tower?
Lilara had told him much about Tower life when he pressed her, but he had always suspected that she softened some of her descriptions. It wasn't a stretch for him to imagine that Rokara's elven heritage had only made it more difficult living under the thumb of Templars.
He watched her for a little while longer. The fur cloak rose and fell with her steady breaths, and although it covered most of her, her pointed ear peeked from beneath her fiery hair. A small silverite cuff sat just below the point, glinting in the light of the fire, drawing and captivating his gaze.
He felt his face flush with embarrassment again. He was so enraptured by her delicate face, so caught up in her ethereal beauty, that he hadn't cared what manner of creature she was. She could have been a demon and he would have accepted his eternal sentence in this cave if only to gaze at her a little longer.
He realised in his musings that her eyes should have given it away. When she had first faced him in the smaller cave opening, they had glowed in the darkness, a marker of her heritage. But when he had wanted to compliment her beautiful eyes, his words had got away from him, as they often did. He had blurted out his realisation, his sudden understanding of her hatred for the Circle and the Templars. He had been insensitive, had probably offended her, yet she still offered sanctuary and warmth to him, even though he was a stranger.
He settled down further beneath the fur, lying on his back. His head rested on his folded hands, and he stared up at the ceiling of the cave, watching as shadows danced between the stalactites. For a while, he watched them dance above him.
She probably thinks I'm an arse, he thought with a frown, she has no idea how beautiful she is.
Chapter 3: Journeys
Alistair woke to movement in the cave. As he rolled to face the burnt out fire, he was surprised to find a cup of water and a small pottery plate beside him piled with food, his stomach grumbling in earnest as he laid his eyes on the hearty piece of smoked deer, a chunk of cheese, and a roll of freshly baked bread that was warm enough to send steam curling in the air above it.
He glanced up, looking for Rokara. She was sitting on her mat across from him, lithe legs crossed as she nibbled on the remains of her breakfast, her eyes downcast. When he sat up her gaze rose to meet his, golden eyes warm and bright even in the soft light cast by the lighting.
'Morning,' she said between bites, 'did you know you snore?'
He flushed, and she stifled a giggle.
'I did,' he said, rubbing absently at the back of his neck, 'I hope I didn't keep you awake.'
'You didn't. I noticed it this morning when I woke up. You should sleep on your side,' she said, then pointed at the food, 'we won't get to stop to eat today until we find shelter, so I suggest you fill up now. I've packed the rest. We'll have enough food to get us to Orzammar.'
'Thank you,' he said, once again surprised by the gesture, 'I appreciate you accommodating me. You could have kicked me back out into the cold.'
'Well, as you know, that's what I was planning to do, but I guess you're not so bad,' she said with a shrug of delicate shoulders, 'to be honest, I misjudged you. I'm sure you can understand that I'm used to being treated in a certain way, so I reacted to you in the same way I used to react to a heavy-handed Templar. That wasn't fair.' She took a breath, releasing it on a sigh. 'I guess I'm just trying to say that I'm sorry. And although I'm not ready to…' She shook her head. 'Trust isn't the way to put it. I'm willing to respect you because you have treated me with respect which I have seldom received since I was taken to the Tower.'
A renewed wave of embarrassment washed over him at her words. 'It's common decency. Anyone who thinks different is no friend of mine.'
She smiled softly at him.
He shifted on his mat, facing her fully. 'Rokara, about what I said last night–'
'It's okay Alistair–'
'No it's not, and I want to explain myself. Words get away from me, more often than I would like to admit. I am not silver-tongued in the slightest. I knew you were an elf when you first approached me, it just hadn't clicked yet. So when we were talking about the Circle all I could think of was how difficult it must have been for you to face not only your apprenticeship as a mage but also the… the abuse for being an elf, for being who you are. It struck me just how much you would have endured, yet you are still kind, and–' He broke off, turning away. 'I really can't express how much I appreciate your hospitality when most humans have probably treated you poorly.'
'Not all of them, though.' A soft smile lit her lips when he glanced at her. 'But that,' she said, 'is a story for another time. I am not ready to share it. One day, I want to be able to tell you.'
One day, he thought, will there even be such a thing between us? She surely won't remain in Orzammar with me.
'I've had little contact with others since I escaped the Circle, but it seems we have been brought together for a reason, whatever that may be,' she said as she picked at her food absently, 'I hope we can be friends, Alistair.'
He couldn't help but smile at her words, and, for a moment, he allowed himself to hope that he might get to enjoy her company a little while longer.
The Sun was still rising when they set out for Orzammar. They had stocked their packs with the food Rokara had prepared and water from a natural spring in the cave. The hike was challenging but Alistair's fitness surprised her; despite the heavy armour, he never faltered, his breath steady behind her as they trekked through the thick snow. She led the way, insisting on staying off the road, even if the walk would be easier.
'There are Templars in the area, heading to the border with Orlais. Until I have dealt with– let's just say I don't feel safe on the road,' she said when he questioned her, 'they do not trust mages, and if they search me, they'll kill me on site. The closer we get to Orzammar, the closer we can hike to the road. It will be easier.'
He wanted to question her further, but the steep incline made it difficult. He decided to save it for when they made camp.
When the sky began to darken, they found shelter in the husk of a giant fallen tree. She went in first to set up their belongings, giving Alistair a chance to remove his armour without prying eyes.
They ate together, leaning against opposite sides of the rough interior of the trunk, an amicable silence resting between them as they rested their weary limbs.
'We should be at Orzammar by late tomorrow if we make use of the daylight,' she said as she nibbled on the crust of her bread, 'I'm sorry that we've stayed off the highway.'
'It's fine. I understand your caution. But, may I ask what you meant when you said they would kill you on sight? Why?'
He tore off another chunk of bread. She stared at her food, seeming to search for the words. After a moment she placed her bread back on the piece of cloth. She reached beneath her shirt, pulling a long leather cord from underneath her tunic. Tied on the end was a shining crystal.
'Do you know what this is?' she asked as she moved closer to him in the confined space, holding it close enough for him to get a good look at the tiny phial, but not close enough for him to take it from her grasp without a fight.
'Is that a phylactery?'
'Yes,' she said, turning it gently in her fingers, 'my phylactery. The Tower was damaged when I left it. The magic defences were broken or breaking and were susceptible to damage. So I took it, knowing that, without it, the Templars would struggle to hunt me down.'
'But why have you kept it?'
She still turned it in her fingers. 'As a reminder, I guess. This phylactery represents…' She paused, turning the words over in her mind. 'The Templar who betrayed me, Antonius... this phylactery represents his betrayal. It represents the violation I experienced when I arrived at the Circle.'
'I'm sorry, I don't understand.'
'They do not ask for your blood when they make the phylactery and if you are unwilling they take it by force. It ensures compliance, but I was never a willing prisoner. I did not overtly act up like others, but I believe Knight-Commander Greagoir was suspicious of me, that he thought I had too much fight in me.'
'Rokara, I should tell you something.'
She looked up from the shining phial. 'Yes, Alistair?'
'Before I became a Grey Warden, well…' He rubbed the back of his neck, glancing down. 'I never took my vows, and I hated the monastery, but I was… I was trained to be a Templar. I was sent there when I was young. I hoped I would never be forced to take my vows, and I'm thankful that Duncan saw something in me. If he had not invoked the Right of Conscription, I might have been one of the Templars that caused you such misery.'
He felt a delicate hand touch his. He glanced up, surprised to find her golden eyes gazing softly at him.
'You have not judged me for my past, Alistair, nor even my intent to harm another in revenge. It would hardly be fair if I judged you.'
'You're not mad?'
'You're not dead, are you?'
She laughed at his shocked look, and he felt a smile tug at his lips. 'Well, I suppose not, although, we are going to have to go to sleep soon. Will I wake up in the morning?'
She shrugged. 'As long as you don't snore too much.'
They laughed again, and she hit him gently when he snorted, making them laugh more. They continued eating as they chatted, their amicable silence making way for conversation and laughter as they traded stories. He talked about the relief work he did in Redcliffe after the Blight ended, and she told him how she had survived for so long in the mountains, and how she had made her wolf fur cloak.
The more they talked, the more he became enthralled by her story. He wanted to learn more, but he also feared he would push her away if he pried.
The darkness became thick as night fell, and, without a fire, they huddled down on their mats in the tight space, trying to keep warm. She faced her back to him as she had the night before, listening to his breaths as they became deeper. He fell asleep quickly, exhausted from the trek. She found it calming to hear the sounds of another being nearby after years of near isolation, to feel the warmth of his body radiating from his back to hers. She remained awake a while longer if only to listen to his steady breaths as she thought about what they had shared that day.
She wondered if it was just because it had been so long since she had substantial contact with another person, but she found talking to Alistair easy, even comforting. When she offered some of herself, he offered his own piece back. Their conversations flowed between them, warming her lonely mind.
At one point, after they'd laughed about one of his stories, he had asked her to stay in Orzammar for a while. For a moment, she thought he was going to ask her to stay with him, and hope had welled in her, but she crushed it just as quickly as it bloomed. He was a human, an attractive one. As much as she desired his friendship, she knew that there could be no more between them.
He had promised to help her locate Antonius after they arrived, but he pushed no further on who he was to her, and she was thankful for that. She had almost told him, the words tickling and burning on her tongue, but deep down she knew that she was not ready to share that story.
Soon, she thought before she drifted off.
Alistair woke as the sun rose, light streaming through the cracks in the ancient tree trunk. Despite the cold air, the trunk was warming in the sunlight, taking the edge off the chill that clung to the confined space. Barely conscious, he snuggled into the thick fur of the bear skin with a sigh.
He inhaled deeply as he yawned and was relieved that the fur didn't smell as unusual as it had the night before. Being in the fresh air while they travelled had made it smell softer, sweeter. As he started to stir more, he wondered if Rokara was already awake, as she had been the day before, but he couldn't hear any noises apart from the creak of trees and a soft breeze outside of the trunk.
He pulled the furs tighter against his chest, a broken moan tumbling from his lips. A frustrated huff escaping him; he realised now why he had woken, his pants straining to contain his length. He dipped his hand down, adjusting himself and trying to ignore the eager pulses that danced in his shaft at the movement.
The fur he was snuggled against stirred.
Alistair paused, opening and closing his palm around the fur, his mind slowly waking as he gently kneaded the soft, giving material. He finally cracked open his eyes as he traced the course fabric and was met with a wall of fiery red.
He stifled a cry, snatching his hand away from her as if burnt. He scooted backwards in the small space, clutching the fur against his chest as his face flushed with colour. He realised now why he was aching when he woke; he had tucked himself tightly against her back, his body reacting as could be expected when he'd been pressed against her, his hips lined up with hers.
Rokara stirred, rolling onto her back with a sigh. 'Is it daylight?' she asked as she sat up and rubbed sleep from her eyes, 'We should get moving.' She glanced at him, and he quickly dropped the fur from his chest. 'I didn't hear you snore last night. Did you sleep well?'
She stretched, her tunic lifting, and his gaze darting down and his hand burning again as he realised what he'd held.
''Mmhmm, great,' he said, flashing a grin as he clambered to his feet, fighting his brightening blush, 'I- ah- nature calls!'
Rokara watched as he exited the trunk, almost tripping in his rush. She bit back a laugh. Clearly, he was busting.
She set out some food for him to eat when he returned to strap on his armour and then took care of her needs, making sure to go in the opposite direction. When she returned, she rolled up their mats and tied them to the base of their packs. Before she left the relative warmth of the trunk she put her fur cloak on, then hauled their packs out. Alistair was strapping his pauldrons on nearby, a chunk of bread held precariously between his teeth that he absently chewed.
She pulled the straps of her pack onto her shoulders, then helped Alistair with his before securing his shield to the back. They set off on their journey again, snow flurries floating around them as they walked. Alistair a little quieter than the day before, his focus ahead as they walked side by side. As much as Rokara missed their conversation, she did not begrudge his silence. She guessed he was still tired from their previous day's trek, completely unaware that he was still blushing under his armour.
Despite the fresh snowfall and the harsh wind, the journey was easier than the day before. As Rokara had promised, the closer they moved to the road as they neared Orzammar, the more forgiving the terrain became. With a few miles left to walk, they stopped to snack on some smoked deer and at the last of their bread. Alistair became talkative again, and she realised how much she'd missed his voice. She enjoyed the ease with which they chatted, but between their conversation thoughts flickered in her mind, her sensitive hearing catching something beyond the warm timbre of his voice.
Rokara clapped a hand over his mouth, listening intently as noises invaded her subconscious.
'What?' he asked, his voice muffled against her gloved palm.
She hushed him. 'Listen.'
He strained his ears. After only a moment, he heard a distinct rustle nearby. He glanced at her, nodding. They both stood slowly, their weapons ready. Alistair picked up his shield from his pack and they moved until they were back to back.
A fallen branch snapped nearby, drawing their gazes in the direction of the sound. Heavy steps approached, moving quickly.
'Bear,' she whispered. Her staff began to glow, the blue light danced eerily over the snow.
Alistair planted his feet as the racing steps came closer. They remained still as the bear weaved through the trees at their side, but they knew that it was only a matter of time before it scented them. As soon as it came into view, the bear's eyes locked onto them, a growl sounding as it shook its shaggy coat.
Alistair darted in front of Rokara as it charged, meeting it head on with his shield. The blow echoed around them, the sound reverberating through the trees. He stumbled back at the force but he quickly regained his balance, bashing his shield with the hilt of his blade. The bear rose on its hind legs, towering above him, but he did not falter.
Rokara cast her spell, freezing the bear in place before it attacked. Alistair dropped his sheild and he thrust his sword forward. When the spell wore off, the bear fell lifelessly to the snowy ground.
He turned to her. 'You okay?'
She nodded. 'Fine. You?'
'Unscathed.' He crouched beside the bear.
'It probably tracked our scent,' Rokara said, 'I would usually take its skin, but we can't afford the extra weight. It will not go to waste, though. Plenty of creatures need to eat, and bear meat certainly isn't the worst option.'
Alistair nodded and they picked up their packs again, ready for the last leg of the journey.
He dared to walk a little closer to her as they walked. 'We made a good team back there.'
She glanced at him, and he caught a soft smile. 'We did.'
Alistair's heart fluttered at the brightness in her golden gaze and the warmth of her smile. He glanced away, rubbing at the back of his neck, and they continued to Orzammar.
Chapter 4: To Orzammar
Night was falling as they approached the entrance to the city. They entered unhindered, the guards friendly and courteous, even offering salutations as they passed. Rokara had heard that, since the end of the Blight, dwarven relations with the surface had improved, but she was still surprised that she and Alistair had passed through the gates so easily. All the books she had read in the Circle about dwarven-surface relations had been pessimistic, at best, but without first-hand experience, the stories told in the books were all she knew.
As they descended into the city, she found herself staring up at the high ceilings and the intricate stonework around them. She had only seen drawings of Orzammar, and they failed terribly at recreating the grandeur and beauty of the city. Pushing the darkspawn back past the trenches had given Orzammar access to many lost resources, and the city shone as a result.
Now they were inside the city, she had removed the heavy hood of her fur cloak and unwrapped the cloth from her face, draping the dark fabric over her head to cover her bright hair and ears. Although she had enjoyed many amicable conversations with the surface elves that lived and traded in and around the Frostback Mountains, she did not want to draw any more attention to herself than she had already.
She glanced around. She felt like people were staring at her even with her ears covered, but there was little more she could do. She stood out in the pale wolf fur, and walking with such a tall man did not help. Plus, it was hard to conceal a mage's staff, especially when it was taller than her.
'Who is this 'friend' that we are meeting with?' Rokara asked as they walked, tugging at the fabric over her head.
'Bhelen. I sent him a letter in advance. He will be expecting me.'
'But not me.'
Alistair glanced down but she wasn't beside him; she'd paused a few feet back. He turned to face her. 'Dwarves may not be used to seeing a lot of mages but I promise you, no one will harm you here.' He held out his hand, beckoning her to follow again. Rokara glanced down at the hand he offered, worrying her bottom lip before she nodded. For the briefest moment, she reached for him, but as she caught up she lowered her hand and tucked it against her side. She did not see his smile falter as he dropped his hand, turning to follow her towards a heavy door. The guards posted outside watched them as they approached.
'Good to see you, Thetin,' Alistair said. He removed his helmet, smiling down at the stocky dwarf.
'By the ancestors… Alistair, is that you?'
Alistair took his hand, each gripping tight for a moment. 'It is indeed. It's been a while.'
'It has, old boy, it has. What are you doing in Orzammar? Another trek through the Deep Roads?'
'Possibly,' Alistair said, 'Bhelen wrote to me. If my return letter arrived as it should have, he'll be expecting me.'
'I'll take ya' right to him. This time of the day, he'll be at the Palace.'
Thetin and his fellow dwarf heaved the door open. 'I'll be back in a mo',' he said to his companion, leading the way.
Rokara fell into step beside Alistair, nudging him with her elbow to catch his attention. 'Palace? As in Royal?' she whispered beside him. Alistair nodded and Rokara felt anxiety flare in her thoughts. 'Why didn't you tell me your friend is the King of Orzammar?'
'Well, to be honest, I had hoped it would...' He rubbed the back of his neck. He cleared his throat. 'I thought it might impress you. Before the Blight, I came here to call the dwarves to arms and invoke a Grey Warden treaty, but there was no king on the throne. We tried to reason with both parties but ended up assisting Bhelen. Harrowmont wasn't bad, per se, but he was... backwards, an isolationist. Bhelen was a reformist. He wanted to bring prosperity back to Orzammar, and by the looks of the city, he certainly has.'
'Good to know,' Rokara said, analysing the beautiful city again. She threw him a quick smirk, 'and yes, I am a little impressed if I'm honest. I've never met royalty before.'
A smile tugged at his lips. 'Just wait until I tell you how I could have been claimed the Ferelden throne.'
Her golden eyes went wide. 'What?' she hissed, but any further questions were cut off as they reached their destination.
'Here we are,' Thetin announced as he opened the door to the Royal Palace for them, 'I best get back to my post. I'm sure I'll see ya' for a drink later, Alistair.'
Alistair laughed. 'We'll see. I was a little worse for wear after the last time.'
They entered the Royal Palace. It was abuzz with activity, every room and hall filled with bustling people. Alistair led the way; he had clearly walked the halls before, his steps confident. They entered the Throne Room, finding Bhelen huddled around a desk full of maps and papers, speaking with a group of impeccably armoured dwarves.
Bhelen looked up as they entered, the strain on his face dropping, replaced by a bright grin. 'Alistair!' he boomed, abandoning his discussion and the table. He approached with sure steps, his smile partially concealed by his beard. He took Alistair's hand firmly, just as Thetin had. 'You made it.'
'Of course,' Alistair said, 'can't resist a good fight with some darkspawn.'
'That's my boy!' Bhelen clapped Alistair on the elbow with a meaty hand. 'We'll talk strategy in a moment. First, you must introduce me to your beautiful companion.'
He held his palm out, looking up at her with that bright grin. Rokara placed her hand in his, blushing as Bhelen bowed and gently kissed her knuckles, his moustache tickling her skin.
'This is Rokara,' Alistair said, shaking off a strange bristling of jealousy as Bhelen stared up at Rokara as if in wonder, 'she too was travelling to Orzammar, and I stumbled into a cave she had made camp in. She sheltered me, and we decided to trek here together. I'm hoping that she will be able to assist us in the Deep Roads, though I will leave that up to her.'
'Any friend of Alistair's is welcome here,' Bhelen said, 'if there is anything I can do for you, my dear, just ask.'
Bhelen turned to his companions, waving them off politely. 'We've made steady progress, friends. We'll resume later.'
They nodded, gathering their things and leading the way out the door, talking to each other as they went.
'Let me take your pack, my lady,' Bhelen said, 'I am sure it is a burden after you have travelled so far.'
She felt her cheeks flush. 'Oh, I'm fine. Thank you.'
She glanced down. 'I… okay. Thank you, your Majesty.'
Bhelen shouldered the pack. 'Please, call me Bhelen.' He smiled at her, then glanced to Alistair as they exited the Palace. 'I dare say your journey has been long,' he said, 'I have already prepared accommodations for you in the Diamond Quarter, not far from here. There are plenty of extra rooms for your friends. When I wrote to you, I sent word to your companions also. Wynne and Shale responded. I almost wrote to Lilara, but when I put pen to paper I remembered… I'm sorry for your loss Alistair.'
His jaw tightened, but he nodded, appreciating his thoughtful words. 'She would have been glad to return to Orzammar.'
Bhelen cleared his throat after a moment. 'Rokara, if you would prefer, I can arrange a separate house for you.'
'Thank you, Bhelen. I appreciate the offer, but I wouldn't want to trouble you any more than I have. You have already been very hospitable despite not expecting me. As long as I have a room, I don't mind staying in a house with Alistair if he doesn't.'
'Not at all,' Alistair said, words more rushed than he intended. He nearly grimaced as Bhelen threw a knowing smirk at him, but Rokara was oblivious to the silent exchange between the two men.
Bhelen stopped before a large gilded door. 'Here we are then,' he said as he took a large key from his pocket, unlocking the door and leading them into the house. The entrance was modest, but a short way down the hall there was a well-appointed common room. They followed Bhelen further in, and he set her pack down beside a huge plush lounge.
'I'll leave you to settle in,' Bhelen said, placing the key on the table between the two lounges, 'join me for supper in an hour if you please. I know you've both travelled far, so I'll have someone bring you each some more comfortable clothes. If there is anything else you require, please do not hesitate to ask.'
Alistair shook his hand again. 'We'll see you shortly.'
Bhelen left, and they were alone once again.
'Wow,' Rokara breathed. She hung her cloak over the back of the couch. 'I just met a King.'
'Anything like you expected?'
'He was so… nice.'
A smile tugged at his lips, but he suppressed it just as quickly. He hiked his pack higher on his shoulder. 'I'll let you pick your room. We could both use a warm bath, I think.'
Her eyes brightened at his words. 'It's been two years since I've been in water that wasn't freezing. This day keeps getting better,' she said, glancing down at her clothes, 'and if I get new robes... I feel greedy for accepting such kindness, but, well,' she pulled at the loose tunic that engulfed her slight frame beneath the coat, 'these are clearly not mine. I am relieved that Bhelen didn't notice.'
'He seemed enamoured by you.'
She flushed, pursing her lips for a moment. 'I'm sure he was just being polite.'
Rokara looked up from the lounge, catching something as flared in his richly coloured eyes, something heated. Alistair, who seemed so easily flustered, held her gaze intently, captured her until she felt her heart kick hard in her chest. She stood a little more abruptly than she intended, breaking free from his captivating eyes.
'I- I'll see you before supper,' she said, grabbing her pack and heaving it onto her shoulder. She hurried to a room, picking the first one she came upon. She closed the door, trying to centre her thoughts.
She turned around to examine her new lodgings, her jaw nearly dropping from her face as she stared at a massive bed carved directly from the stone. Ornate patterns filled the sharp edges, knots that seemed infinite. She set her pack down by the door, walking further into the room, struck by the beauty she found in the stone. The ceiling wasn't as high as it had been in the common room, she noticed, but it was rough and untouched, a piece of the natural beauty of the earth. Beneath her feet was a lavish, plush rug, and she felt excitement spark as she kicked off her shoes to curl her toes in the soft fabric.
She looked around the room while she enjoyed the warmth of the carpet. There was a desk set out from the wall with an ornate chair, facing the doorway, equipped with paper, ink, and a fine quill. There was also a dresser, a set of drawers, and a large wardrobe arranged within the room. A door on the opposite wall led to a private bathroom, and when she entered she nearly squealed in excitement when her eyes fell upon the large stone bath that sat steaming in the corner, seemingly heated naturally as if it were her very own hot spring.
She eagerly stripped her clothes. Someone could have walked in at any moment, but she didn't care, all thoughts of decency fleeing as she slid into the hot water, a happy shiver rolling over her. She scrubbed her skin so hard it was almost painful, but in that moment she'd never felt cleaner in her life. She washed her hair, a feeling she could only describe as euphoria flooding through her. After so many cold baths, she revelled in the luxury of the hot water, in the heat that seemed to burn her to her very bones. It could have started to melt her skin off and still, she would have stayed in the tub.
'Excuse me, my lady,' a feminine voice called from the hall, 'I have brought you some clothes, is it all right if I enter?'
'Oh, yes, I'm in the bathroom. Thank you so much,' Rokara called back, 'please, leave them on the bed. I'll be out shortly.'
'Is there anything else you need?'
'No, no, thank you so much!'
'Of course, my lady. I have left a note from Bhelen. He awaits you at the Palace.'
'Thank you again.'
Rokara waited until she heard the door close before she climbed out of the tub. She dried herself then returned to the bedroom, feeling giddy at the simple things she had enjoyed during the short time she'd been in Orzammar. She had expected to find one outfit laid out for her, but there appeared to be a whole wardrobe spread carefully across the bed. She clutched her chest, reaching out to caress the soft fabric for a moment before she carefully sifted through the clothes, her throat constricting as emotions flooded her.
She found multiple pairs of smallclothes and nearly cried with happiness as she slid them on, not feeling even one itchy thread. She tried to pick something appropriate for dinner with the King, opting for a flattering blue dress with silver accents that glistened in the light, the squared neckline revealing her collarbones. The sleeves were long and fitted as if tailored to her, the hem brushing the tops of her feet, more intricate patterns weaving around the bottom edge of the skirt.
She pulled the worn cord of her phylactery over her head, tucking it into her undergarments between her breasts. No one seemed, so far, to mind that she was a mage. She could not, however, allow them to discover she was an apostate. For now, she hoped they would assume she was a Grey Warden.
At the base of the bed, she found a collection of shoes. She picked a complimentary pair and slipped them on, the leather soft on her skin, he3r tired feet relishing in the padded sole.
She moved around the room, tugging at her damp hair. She went to the dresser, finding a fine bristle brush to ease the tangles in her hair. Her ears peeked from beneath the damp strands, clear markers of her heritage. She sought out a soft silvered shawl on the bed and wrapped the fabric over her head, as she had done with the cloth when she had arrived in the city.
When she had finished dressing, she found the note that Bhelen had left on the bedside table. She opened the envelope, pulling a small sheet of beautifully crafted paper from within.
My dear Rokara,
I hope that the clothes are to your liking. Melena is an excellent tailor so if something does not fit you, please do not hesitate to contact my staff.
I fear I am not too forward, but it is a custom here to welcome royal guests with a small gift. My mother crafted this pendant many years ago. I hope you will wear it tonight for dinner.
It seemed Alistair had been right when he suggested that Bhelen was interested, much to her surprise. She examined the necklace, trailing her fingers over the delicate chain; A small knotted pendant hung from it, glistening in the soft light of the room.
She slipped the chain around her neck, the pendant settling between her collarbones. She would wear it as he asked, and although she appreciated the gesture, she was uncertain about how she would gently reject the romance of the King. His advance was flattering, but she knew that entering into a relationship would be dangerous. It would not take long for him to uncover the truth about her identity if she got too close. She would gladly assist in pushing back the darkspawn, but once she had found Antonius, she would have to leave.
She made her way back to the living room. She slowed as she approached, pausing beside the doorway to peek into the open room. Alistair was sitting on the lounge, his feet propped on the low table between the two lounges. He had also changed, exchanging his armour for a finely cut tunic and soft leather pants. He looked relaxed now, his hands folded behind his head, making the gorgeous blue fabric stretch tight over his biceps and chest, hinting at more of the muscled figure she had glimpsed in the cave. Although his hair was wet and he had clearly bathed, his jaw remained stubbled. She found herself oddly pleased to note such a thing and felt her cheeks flush at the thought.
She glanced down at her dress, noting the matching blue and realising that they had accidentally coordinated their outfits. It was a coincidence. Alistair probably wouldn't even notice, she reasoned, and she forced herself to enter the room.
Alistair glanced at the doorway when he heard her soft footsteps. He stood as she entered, but almost regretted the action, the sight of her nearly knocking him off his feet. Her beauty had struck him in the cave, but now it stole his breath, now it made his heart thunder. The vibrant blue dress hugged her slender figure, contrasting with her alabaster skin. She seemed to be gently brushed with a shimmering dust as she approached. Her high, sharp cheekbones, tinged with the sweetest pink, were framed by the soft shawl she had wrapped around her hair. When he met her gaze, her golden eyes shone softly in the faintly lit room. She worried her bottom lip under his assessing gaze, and he struggled to stop himself from advancing.
His eyes fell to the pendant that graced her neck. The words on his tongue evaporated as he noted the intricate dwarven knot, a searing flash of jealousy igniting in him at the memory of Bhelen's lingering kiss on her hand. Jealousy burned him now, burned him for not taking her pack before the dwarf, for not making his appreciation for her bright mind and lovely face known, but he squashed the feeling. He had no claim to this woman, no matter how much he desired her.
He cleared his throat to cover the pause. 'Shall we go?'
She smiled brightly, tugging at the soft shawl so it framed her face. 'Yes. I'm starving. Aren't you?'
'Oh, yeah. Starving,' he said, a weak laugh falling from his lips. He offered his arm to her, his heart skipping as she joined him. She had hesitated to take his hand before, and he caught a moment of hesitation again, but she looped her slender arm with his, offering a nervous smile that made his stomach flutter. As they walked, he cast a sideways glance at the pendant, unable to draw his mind away from all it could mean.
A gift from Bhelen.
Jealousy flared inside him again, and he suppressed it as sharply as the first time. How could he expect her to resist his flattery?
I have no right to feel this way. Who am I to deny her the courtship of a King?
He found himself suddenly wondering if he should have accepted his throne. He had, after all, been presented with the chance, but deep down he knew the musings were futile. If he had taken the throne, he would not be by her side now. He could not deny that he had enjoyed the time he had spent with her so far. Though counted in mere days, they had talked extensively. He had hoped…
No. You have been down this path before, Alistair.
He resolved himself. Whatever fate the Maker decided for Rokara, he would accept it, even if it meant he didn't have a chance.
Chapter 5: Defiance
Diamond Quarter, Orzammar
When Rokara and Alistair reached the Palace, they were led to the private dining chambers to meet with Bhelen. Once more, Rokara found herself in awe of the architecture, in the intricately carved sections that met with natural stone. Alistair had been quiet for much of the walk from their quarters, and she had found herself observing him through sideways glances. He had smiled so brightly at her when she had entered the common room, but something in his eyes had changed, the warmth replaced with shadows. She wanted to ask if he liked the dress she had chosen, but bit her tongue; his thoughts were not her business.
Bhelen welcomed them as they entered, greeting them with a bearded grin. He pulled out Rokara's chair for her before he took his own, directly across from her. The table was a large square with four place settings, and Alistair took a side.
As the food was served, they chatted amicably. Alistair and Bhelen exchanged stories of their exploits, and Rokara listened, fascinated by both the adventures and the politics. It felt so civilised to talk over dinner, to discuss subjects that so many people believed to be boring, but she revelled in it.
Inevitably, though, Bhelen turned his attention to her. She had dreaded the moment, knowing she would have to lie to him, not matter how kind he had been to her.
'Tell me, Rokara. Where are you from? I assume you studied in a Ferelden Circle.'
'Yes. I studied in the Janin Circle, but I am originally from Redcliffe,' she lied, knowing it would be easiest if she skirted along the truth, substituting place names wherever possible, 'I served a family there until my magic began to appear.'
'I know this is rather personal, but I must ask… your Harrowing. I've heard some tales, but I confess I know little about the process. Clearly, it was successful, but how did you manage it?'
'It was difficult,' she said, another lie, 'the desire demon that was summoned was very strong, but I guess I was stronger.'
Bhelen questioned her some more, seemingly fascinated by her. She answered politely, but each word that came from her tongue was a lie. She could feel Alistair's gaze on her. He knew enough to pick up on it, and she wondered if he would comment. Instead, he listened, acting as if he'd heard the story already. He knew how terrified she was of being discovered to be an apostate, and he seemed determined to protect her. She felt a great respect for the Warden.
As their plates were cleared, Bhelen became more serious, brow furrowing as he turned to the topic which had brought Alistair back to the city.
'Alistair, I was somewhat vague in my letter to you. In truth, it is not a normal force of darkspawn we face. It is a particularly savage group, and we have lost many good men holding it back as long as we have. We push it back step by step, but it seems to renew itself in days. It is certainly not a Blight, but I fear there may be a broodmother hidden deeper in the Thaig, and I am hoping that you and your companions will aid Orzammar once again and lead a force against it.'
'Of course, Bhelen.'
The King nodded, resolved. 'We will prepare some tactics in the coming days. I expect we will be ready to descend to the Thaig shortly after Wynne and Shale arrive.'
Bhelen pushed back from the table to rise. Alistair and Rokara followed suit, but Bhelen paused at the edge beside Rokara.
'May I talk with you privately, Rokara? Before you leave.'
She paused, glancing at Alistair. A polite refusal formed on her lips but Alistair spoke before she could manage a word. 'I'll see you back at the house,' he said, bowing his head before he excused himself.
Once the door closed behind him, Bhelen motioned for her to sit again. She settled back into her chair reluctantly, folding her hands in her lap to keep herself from tugging at her shawl.
Bhelen approached slowly, leaning against the edge of the table. 'I'm sure you have guessed my intentions, by now,' he said, glancing at her with his warm gaze, 'you are a beautiful woman, Rokara. I would be honoured if you would consider sharing a private meal with me tomorrow evening.'
'Bhelen,' she started, searching for words, 'I… I cannot thank you enough for your kindness and hospitality…'
'But?' he prompted with a soft smirk on his lips.
'But… I'm sorry.' She glanced down at her hands for a moment. 'I will not lead you on a path that you cannot walk. I am incredibly flattered by your note and your words, and I will gladly assist with the fight against the darkspawn, but beyond that… I won't be staying in Orzammar.'
Bhelen sighed. 'I cannot say I am not disappointed, but I will not push you.' A soft smile peeked from beneath his beard. 'Thank you for indulging me thus far.'
'I will return your mother's necklace.'
He smiled. 'It remains a gift. Please keep it, to remember your time in Orzammar. However long that may be.'
She managed a smile though she could not meet his gaze. 'Thank you. It is truly beautiful.'
He offered her his hand. 'Allow me to escort you back to the guest house. You must be tired,' he said. She placed her palm atop his and he led her through the Palace. 'My offer still stands, Rokara. If you need anything, do not hesitate to ask. I sense that you have a request to make, but are unsure if it will be welcome. I assure you, it will.'
'There is one thing I am looking for,' she admitted.
'There is a Templar I seek, known as Antonius. If you have any information on his location, I would appreciate it.'
'And why do you seek a Templar?'
'My reasons are my own.'
He nodded, accepting her answer. 'I will send some scouts. They will report anything they discover directly to you.'
'Thank you, Bhelen,' she said as they stopped outside the door.
He bent his head to kiss her hand. 'Sleep well, Rokara.'
Royal Guest House
Diamond Quarter, Orzammar
Alistair stared up at the natural stone ceiling absently, tracing patterns in the rock. When he had arrived back at the house, he laid back on the lounge and attempted to sift through his jumbled thoughts. He did not have long, though, for shortly after he arrived, he heard the heavy front door open. He sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the lounge. As she entered, he noticed that she was unclasping the necklace.
'I told you he was enamoured,' he said, forcing a smirk, trying to be jovial even though he felt anything but.
'While I was very flattered, I let him down gently.'
She sat beside him on the lounge, placing the necklace gently on the table. She did not seem to notice the hitch in Alistair's breath as she leant back, a mere foot from his side, so close that the barest movement would settle his arm around her shoulders.
She sighed. 'I want to help in the Deep Roads. I will help in the Deep Roads. But I don't see my future here in Orzammar, nor do I see it with a Dwarven King. I don't know where it lies.'
'Not going to give Bhelen a chance?'
She glanced at him. 'I'm not going to lead him on, King or no. It wouldn't be fair.' She stood again, and he fought the urge to reach for her. 'I'm going to go to bed. I'll see you in the morning, Alistair.'
He watched her leave, body straining as if urging him to follow. He felt the sinking weight in his stomach ease, knowing that she had blocked Bhelen's advance. He did not yet understand the feelings that churned within him, the flickering moments of jealousy, curiosity, and desire, but he felt determined to get to know her. She had offered him trust, and he wanted her to know that it was mutual. He wanted her to know that, despite all she had been through, she had a friend.
He dragged himself up from the lounge, trudging through the guest house. He walked past her room, noticing that the door was partially open, soft light glowing from within. He heard no movement inside and ducked his head around the door slowly, peeking in. Rokara slept peacefully, her tiny frame engulfed by the warm covers and the massive bed.
Sweet dreams, Roka, he thought, pulling the door closed before he continued to his room.
The days following their arrival were filled with activity, and in the middle of it all, Bhelen insisted on giving them a personal tour of the city. Alistair thought he would be upset by Rokara's rejection, but he seemed to have accepted it in his stride. He remained polite, allowing Rokara personal space, never once pushing the boundaries that she had set for him. His focus turned to his city, and with pride, he noted all the advancements that had been made since Alistair had last been in Orzammar.
Alistair was astounded at the progress, but he found himself spending more time looking at Rokara than he did the city. He noted the way her golden eyes brightened at the sights and architecture, the curiosity that sparked in her gaze intoxicating. She was eager to learn about Dwarven history and culture, and Bhelen obliged her, answering every question her sharp mind could think of. He took them to the Shaperate at the end of their tour, and Rokara buried herself in books.
When they weren't with Bhelen discussing the upcoming charge against the darkspawn, Alistair went with Rokara to the surface. They talked to the traders and travellers that frequented the area, but none had heard of a Templar named Antonius. He could see that she was getting restless, could see the fear that haunted her gaze in moments when she thought he was not looking.
They returned to the living room in their guest quarters after another few hours of fruitless questions and searching. Alistair could sense that she was disheartened, but she tried her best not to show it on her face, forcing smiles for him when he made jokes or funny comments.
She ducked into her room for a moment, returning with a worn, leather-bound notebook. He'd seen it in her hands before, but he had never shown him the contents. She opened it, flicking through until she found the correct page. She scribbled some notes, then flicked through a few more pages, adding to them again.
'Well, he may not have reached Orzammar yet, but he will have to pass by to cross the border with Orlais.'
She placed the notebook on the table in front of her, staring at it absently as she tapped the rough-hewn charcoal pencil against her lip.
Alistair found himself watching her once again, tracing the features he had surely memorised countless times in the last few days. She still wore a soft shawl over her hair and ears. He had wanted so desperately to reach for it and unwrap it, even now his hand rose of its own will.
'I know you've been wondering how much of what I told Bhelen was true,' she said, placing the pencil beside the notebook.
'I won't deny it.'
She looked down at her hands, brushing charcoal from her slender fingertips. 'We have known each other for, what, two weeks?' He nodded. 'Despite that, you have helped me without question, even though I am hunting a Templar and even though I have made my intent to kill him clear. Not once have you demanded to know why I desire revenge so keenly, even though you have every right to,' she said. She turned to face him on the lounge, tucking her ankles beneath her.
'Before I was taken to the Circle, I lived in a noble household outside of Denerim. Ser Fenneric and his wife were unwaveringly kind. I was only a baby when he employed my parents. We were ostracised from the alienage when my parents accepted work at the Fenneric household, but my mother always told me that she never regretted it. Ser Fenneric took care of us. He and his family respected my parents' values and hard work when others had vilified them for their elven blood.
'When my mother was working, Ser Fenneric would take care of me. The Fenneric's had struggled to conceive their second child for many years. They had almost given up when Lady Fenneric fell pregnant, but they lost their daughter to illness when she was a baby, only a year before we arrived in the house. They were still heartbroken. Lady Fenneric told me when I was older that my smile reminded him of their Emily: she could see it too. She said to that… that I helped them heal.
'They had an older son, nine years older than me. He was the only boy I knew, the only friend I had, even though we were so far apart in age. I saw him as an older brother, and, for a long time, I suppose he saw me as the little sister he lost.
'My life was sheltered there. Safe. I thought that all elves were treated like my family and me, but when I arrived at the Circle Tower, I met another elf for the first time. He had belonged to a Denerim family in the city. When his magic started to develop, his master beat him for it. He told me that his master was angry because he had to buy another servant boy. I was horrified, thinking he was telling me a sick joke, but I still remember the blank stare he gave me when I asked what he had been paid for his work. He laughed at me. I did not know that it was so unusual, even unheard of, for elves to be paid for their work, let alone offered a wage higher than a human servant in the same position.'
'It sounds like Ser Fenneric and his family were good to you,' Alistair said, 'I can't imagine what you went through when they sent you off to the Circle, but I can understand why you felt betrayed.'
'Ser Fenneric never betrayed me,' she said with a sharp shake of her head, 'nor did Lady Fenneric. When I began to show signs of having magical blood, they hid me, promising that I would be safe in their house and that they would find me a trusted tutor to teach me to control my magic. But Antonius had joined the Templars when he was eleven. They changed him somehow. They warped his mind. He became suspicious when he visited the household. Shortly after I turned eight, he told his superior of his suspicions. Templars came to the house, demanding that Ser Fenneric hand me over me, but he refused. I still remember the sound of Antonius… hitting his father. And Lady Fenneric begged him to stop.
'My parents tried to stop me, but I pulled from their grip. I begged Antonius not to hurt Ser Fenneric anymore, not realising that I had done as he expected. I had not understood what was going on. He grabbed my arm so hard that I had bruises for weeks. It was so loud, for so long; my parents and the Fenneric's shouted, cursed, but Antonius ignored them. The other Templars held them back and Antonius gave me to his superior. I screamed so much when he dragged me away that I could barely speak when I arrived at the Tower.
'Antonius is the one who betrayed me, not the Fenneric's. I trusted him. I idolised him as a girl. We played together and laughed together as children, even after he joined the Templar Order, and he still ripped me away from my family and my life. He was the one that held me down when Irving took my blood. He was the one who smiled at me when I begged to go home, telling me that I would never see my family again. He was the one who told Knight-Commander Greagoir that I should become a Tranquil. They were going to take away my willpower, my personality, all because Antonius said that an elf with so much spirit should not be trusted with a magical will.'
She felt a dampness in her hands as she clenched them. She raised them as she uncurled her fingers, staring at the red that trickled from her skin. Her nails had dug deep enough to cut the surface, her hands shaking as she stared.
Alistair rushed to find some cloth, returning to her side to wrap her hands gently. When she looked up, his head was down, his eyes focused on her palms as he gently tended to her wounds. His was surprised to see how much shoulders quivered, was surprised to feel rage rolling off him, his anger tangible in the air.
'I am so sorry. I don't understand how someone could–' He shook his head. 'I'm sorry. We will find him, and I will help you kill him for what he has done to you.'
'This is my burden, Alistair.'
'And now it's mine.'
She opened her mouth to protest, but a knock at the door stopped her. Alistair glaced at her hands for a moment, seeming reluctant to release her, but he soon released her hands and stood to answer the door. She heard a quiet exchange, turning to face him as he returned to the common room.
'This is from Bhelen's scouts,' he said, holding up the letter. She held out her hand, but he drew it back, capturing her gaze. 'I'm part of this now, Rokara. No matter what.'
He passed her the missive, and she ripped open the wax seal. Alistair watched her read, the anticipation almost too much to bear. He waited for the rush of her excitement, waited for her to announce that they had located Antonius near the border and that they would set out within the hour. But as she read, her eyes grew darker, and Her body shook. As she gripped the page, blood from her hands seeped through the fabric covering her wounds and into the paper.
When she screamed, the sound ripped at his soul. It was a deep anguish, a sound he had only heard once before.
He dropped to his knees in front of her, gripping her shoulders. 'Rokara,' he said, shaking her, 'Roka, tell me what's wrong.'
Her chest heaved, breaths catching in her throat. When she lifted her head to look up at him, her reddened eyes were filled with tears. She shook as she handed him the report, burying her face in his chest as she sobbed.
Antonius Fenneric, Templar: Location.
Imperial Highway, Frostback Mountains. 17 miles from Ferelden-Orlais border.
Appointed to seek apostates.
Killed in action: darkspawn ambush. Verified.
He dropped the note, wishing he could wipe the memory of the words from her mind as he wrapped his arms around her, holding her as she shook.
'I know you wanted to be the one to kill him, but I promise you, Roka: he suffered. The darkspawn made him suffer, and the Maker would find his suffering justified. He has no hold over you anymore. You are too strong for him: you proved that when you escaped the Tower, when you survived in the Frostback Mountains for two years, alone.'
She shook her head. 'It doesn't matter now. I did it all for nothing.'
'Don't you dare diminish your strength!' He cupped her cheeks, lifting her eyes to his. He needed to calm her, to show her that there was more to her than revenge, to show her that she was so much more than her anger. 'Tell me how you escaped, Roka, for, at that moment, you defeated Antonius. You showed him that you were stronger than he could ever be. At that moment,' Alistair said, fire in his eyes, 'whether you struck the killing blow or not, you sealed his fate.'
He held her gaze as her shoulders still shook, but her breaths slowly steadied, the sobs no longer catching in her throat. She wiped her eyes with the back of her wrists, but she did not move away from him, her hands returning to grip the fabric of his tunic. The warmth that radiated from his body centred her, her hold on his shirt an anchor in the present as she dragged herself from her memories.
She detailed her escape, leaving nothing out, determined to make him understand her pain. She told him how she retrieved her phylactery, how she faced and killed the demon that attacked her. She told him of her fall into Lake Calenhad when her body became too weak. He listened intently, allowing her to speak, and the more she told him, the calmer she became.
He was in awe of her, in awe of her strength, to face a demon alone and defeat it when she had not yet faced her Harrowing, in awe of her determination to fight a Templar despite nursing broken bones. At every step, she fought for her freedom.
'I… I thought about going to Denerim and finding my parents and the Fennerics, but I had no idea if they still lived. I had no contact with them during my years in the Tower. Even when I escaped, I knew it would be too dangerous to go back. The Templars would have checked there first, and it would all have been in vain. So I went in the opposite direction.'
She told him about life in the mountains, how she had survived for so long. Despite her sheltered life, she learned to hunt and to barter. She adapted to each situation that faced her, determined to never fall into the hands of Templars again.
When she finished, he found he could not move away. He cupped her cheeks once again, wiping tears from her cheeks. She seemed to lean into his touch, and he found himself hoping, found himself wishing he could truly offer the comfort she needed. He reached to unwrap the soft shawl again, but this time he did not stop himself.
'You are so brave. I wish I could make you see the strength that I see in you,' he whispered as he dropped the fabric beside them, light dancing on her fiery hair. He swept the silken strands behind her ears, revealing the high points, his gaze catching on the little silverite cuffs that hugged the bottom edge, but she tried to pull away. 'You do not need to hide, Roka. You are so much stronger, so much more courageous than society has ever told you. Be proud of that.'
The door to the house opened, hinges creaking loudyl, voices drifting into the common room from the entrace hall. As Alistair turned away, Rokara pulled from his grasp. She disappeared from the common room with her notebook and his gaze lingered on the hallway. He desperately wanted to follow her, his mind torn, but heavy footsteps approached.
'Is it here?' a coarse voice called.
He turned to face the entrance hall. 'Shale?'
The golem appeared in the entry to the common room. It removed a large pack from its shoulders, placing it on the floor. 'Ah, it is here. How long has it been since I saw it last?'
Alistair thought that Shale might have smiled as he said, 'too long.'
'Too long indeed, young man.'
Alistair had to lean sideways to look around Shale. 'Wynne!'
The old mage smiled at him, her eyes as bright as he remembered. When he reached her, she embraced him. He pulled back, holding her shoulders for a moment.
'You haven't aged a day!'
She bat playfully at his arm. 'Your humour hasn't either.'
'You missed the banter.'
She shrugged. 'Maybe a little.'
'Where have you been?'
'I could ask you the same question, Alistair, but I suppose we each have tried to assist others in these months after the Blight. Shale and I have travelled together for a time.'
'It is an acceptable companion, for a mage. I find I am quite fond of it.'
Alistair laughed. 'Such kind words, coming from you.'
'I must say that I have rather enjoyed Shale's company,' Wynne said, 'I'm not as young as I once was.'
'I would appreciate it if it didn't spread around that I said anything,' Shale said, 'I don't want humans to get the wrong idea. They might start thinking their race is not utterly hopeless.'
Alistair quirked a brow. 'Why do I feel like I've heard you say that before?'
'I hear that we are to fight some darkspawn,' Wynne said, drawing Alistair's attention back to the issue at hand, 'Bhelen said in his letter that he fears there may be a broodmother in one of the Thaigs.'
'Indeed. Now that you have arrived, we should meet with him. He'll be in the Royal Palace.'
'We shall go at once then,' Wynne said.
Alistair had missed her determination. She seemed soft and grandmotherly, but a fierceness still dwelled within.
'I'll catch up,' he said, ducking back a step.
Shale raised a rocky brow. 'Does it have better things to attend to?'
'No, no,' he said, 'just… human things.'
'Ah, I do not need to know what it does when alone. Come, Wynne; we will leave it.'
Wynne chuckled but followed Shale out of the common room. When the door had closed behind them, Alistair rushed the hallway, stopping outside Rokara's door. It was closed, and he paused at the threshold, his hand raised hesitantly. He drew a breath before he knocked softly.
'It's me,' he said.
He was met with silence. He dropped his hand back to his side, closing his eyes, but the click of the lock made him stay. She opened the door slowly, peeking out. Her eyes were still tinged with red, but no more tears lined them.
'Are you alright?' he asked, regretting the question. How could she be truly alright?
She opened the door fully after a final moment of hesitation. Half burnt pages from her notebook were scattered on the ground among flakes of ash.
'Yes. I… I'm angry that I didn't get to take Antonius' life myself, but you're right. He would have suffered when the darkspawn killed him. I'm going to have to accept that as enough,' she said, 'thank you for listening to me. Making me talk about the Tower forced me to focus on a different perspective. All that I did… it wasn't for revenge, it was to save myself, and in that at least I was successful.'
He gently eased the door open further. 'Show me your hands.'
She held them out to him, and he gently unwrapped the cloth. The bleeding had stopped, but the wounds remained.
'Wynne will be able to heal these blindfolded,' he reassured her.
'She and Shale arrived. They're on their way to speak to Bhelen about the darkspawn.'
'We should go,' she said, but her words did not have her usual determination. She hesitated, something flickering in her gaze. She withdrew her hands from his grasp. She grasped the cord that hung around her neck, tugging it over her head. The phylactery glowed faintly in the light, and she stared at the small phial for a moment, memories passing through her gaze.
'I have carried this for so long,' she whispered as she untied the leather cord from around it, 'I was going to destroy it before Antonius' eyes, my final act of defiance against him. I can't do that now.' She rolled the phial in her hand, staring at it. 'I'm free.'
Alistair nearly jumped when she threw the phylactery, her movement so sudden. It shattered against the stone wall behind the desk, fine shards of glass raining to the floor. Fire returned to her eyes as she faced him, her golden eyes burning brightly.
'I agreed to fight. Let's find out what we're up against.'
Chapter 6: Dreams
They poured over maps of the Deep Roads for two hours. Bhelen revealed that darkspawn movements were primarily originating from within Ortan Thaig, and that the forces he had sent to investigate had been overwhelmed, and could not get deep enough to discover the exact location of the suspected broodmother. Together, they discussed optimal access routes, and by the evening, they formed a plan of attack.
The four companions returned to the guest house, and Alistair and Rokara retired to their rooms. Wynne waited until the house was quiet before she turned to her rocky companion.
'What are your thoughts on this new mage that Alistair has befriended?'
'It is intelligent. I was rather impressed by its tactical analysis. It seems to want to help.'
'But do you trust her?'
'Despite it being a mage, it has not presented me with a reason to distrust it,' Shale said, 'Alistair seems to trust it. In fact, he seems rather fond of it. The way he looked at it when they touched hands at the table was interesting. I believe that he may want to rub against it, or whatever humans do when attracted to each other.'
Wynne rolled her eyes. 'That is quite enough of that description.'
'I am only being honest. You asked my opinion, and I gave it.'
'You do speak your mind, don't you, Shale?'
'Fortunately, no other part of me has anything else to say.'
Wynne sighed. 'There's something about her that I cannot place. But, Alistair does indeed seem to trust her. That is enough for now, I suppose.'
The following day, they travelled to the Deep Roads with a contingent of dwarves. They went to Ortan Thaig, documenting as much as possible during their explorations. There certainly was an increase in darkspawn activity. They joined the dwarves that held the line, combining forces to push the darkspawn deeper. As they fought, a deafening screech echoed through the tunnels, Alistair and Wynne exchanged a knowing gaze.
They cleared the darkspawn forces deeper in the Thaig, but their path was blocked by an old rockfall that would take time to clear. They had done all they could for now. It would be a matter of days before the forces were strengthened once again, and the warriors would be able to hold them back for a time. The dwarves were nothing if not stubborn, and now they had the upper hand.
Wynne continued to watch Rokara, but she proved herself to be a powerful and companionable mage. She seemed a natural elementalist, her control of fire astounding for someone so young. As they trekked back to the city, Wynne found herself falling into step with her. She asked about her Circle, not knowing that Rokara was feeding her the same lie she had told to Bhelen.
When Wynne asked about her Harrowing, Rokara seemed to stiffen.
'I'm sorry,' Wynne said, sensing her raising a wall between them, 'I did not mean to upset you, I know it's a challenging experience. I am sure you handled it with the same finesse you showed in the Deep Roads today.'
'Thank you, Wynne, that's a fine compliment coming from such a powerful mage.'
The rest of their conversation was friendly. Although Rokara did not feel she could be honest with the elder mage yet, she respected Wynne greatly.
Bhelen met them at the entrance to the Deep Roads. 'What news do you bring?'
'I'm sorry Bhelen, it seems you were right. We could not reach it, but we heard a broodmother down there,' Alistair said, removing his helmet, 'with the help of your troops, we were able to clear out most of the darkspawn and push back the line deeper into the Thaig, but with a broodmother… it will not be long before they reinforce their numbers.'
Bhelen's brow tightened. 'We must make more preparations. I will ready my finest warriors and gather the supply carts. We depart for Ortan Thaig in 36 hours.'
Alistair bowed his head. 'We'll stop this, Bhelen. You will reclaim your Thaigs.'
'I cannot thank you enough for your help,' he said, 'go rest. I'll have dinner brought to your quarters.'
'May I make a small request, King Bhelen?'
'Of course, Wynne.'
'Oghren spoiled me somewhat during our journeys together. It has been a long time since I have had an opportunity to indulge in some fine Dwarven ale.'
Bhelen laughed heartily. 'Of course.' He turned, still chuckling softly to himself as he headed away from them.
The four companions returned to the guest house. Rokara, Alistair, and Wynne collapsed on the lounges, exhausted by the day of fighting. Shale stood at the edge of the lounge that Wynne rested on.
'Those darkspawn were weak. They did not even manage to chip me.'
'Lucky you.' Alistair shifted in his armour awkwardly before he rose to his feet again. 'I have to go take this off.'
'I think I need to lie down,' Rokara muttered.
The young mage's face had paled since they arrived back in the city and she held her side tightly. The pink tinge that normally dusted her cheeks was absent, her golden gaze dull.
Wynne shifted to the edge of her seat. 'Are you hurt?'
'It took a tackle from a darkspawn in the last battle,' Shale said.
'I felt fine before,' she said with a grimace.
'You may be injured internally,' Wynne said, rising quickly, 'lie down.'
'Lie down, young lady, or I will have Shale make you.'
Rokara glanced to Shale. The golem's stony eyebrow arched in challenge and it said, 'I will restrain it if it does not do as the wise one requests.'
The pain was becoming stronger now, and she saw no other option. She lay back on the lounge.
'Where does it hurt?'
'Below my ribs on my left.'
Wynne placed her hands gently there, and Rokara flinched. 'I suspect that tackle did more damage than we first realised,' she said as she channelled her magics, 'you should have mentioned it, but you probably only noticed it because the excitement of the fight wore off.'
After a minute, the pain subsided, the light of Wynne's magic slowly fading. Wynne helped Rokara sit up again, guiding her with a steadying hand, watching her intently for a moment.
Rokara touched her side, probing at the spot. 'Thank you,' she said, 'you're an incredible mage.'
Wynne smiled as she stood, returning to the lounge. 'As are you.'
'I thought squishy beings made much more noise when injured. It handled pain well.'
'Thanks, Shale. I think.'
'It is welcome.'
Alistair returned to the living area, stripped of his armour and wearing a fitted tunic and pants. He rolled his shoulders, a grimace tugging at his lips at the movement. 'Wynne, I think I may have overdone it with my shield arm,' he said, flexing it, 'would you mind working your magic?'
She beckoned him forward. 'Come sit down.'
He dropped his tall frame on the floor in front of her, leaning against her knees. She grasped his shoulder gently, a soft glow diffusing from her hands as she massaged the muscles. Alistair relaxed against her legs, tension and exhaustion easing from his body. 'Thanks, Wynne.'
Rokara watched from the opposite lounge. She knew that they had been through much together during the Blight, forming a bond of companionship that would never be broken. In the Deep Roads, they had bickered and bantered incessantly, even during the fighting, but they shared a profound respect for each other. This was friendship, companionship, the connection she had craved so desperately for so long. The connection which Alistair offered her at every moment.
She found herself dwelling on the evening before. Alistair had held her tightly as she cried, had touched her so gently. The last time she remembered feeling as safe with someone as she felt with Alistair, she had been eight years old.
Movement in the entry hall drew her from her musings. A line of dwarves entered, placing food on the large table between the lounges. They filed in and out in an organised line.
Alistair clapped his hands together. 'I am so hungry,' he exclaimed as he rose to his feet to gather a plateful of food and a flagon of beer. He sat beside Rokara on the lounge, digging in.
Rokara gathered food as well, grateful for yet another fresh meal. She took a flagon of ale from the table, too curious to miss the opportunity to try the beverage for the first time. The metal flagon massive in her slender hands, brimming with the amber liquid, so full that she doubted she would be able to drink all of it. She took a tentative sip and flavours burst on her tongue, the brew full of spices with a lingering hint of sweetness that soothed the bite of the spice.
Wynne took a sip. 'Ahh, a hint of nuttiness and cloves,' she said, smiling fondly, 'it reminds me of Oghren's homebrew.'
Shale retired to her room to read, expressing her desire to stop watching the humans chew noisily.
For a time, they talked about the imminent assault on the broodmother. More of the ale disappeared. As the hour became late, Wynne retired for the night to the room at the far end of the house, complaining of her over indulgence in the ale, but only after she quipped at them not stay up too late, her chiding reminding her of her mother and Lady Fenneric.
They remained on the lounge, drinking and nibbling at the remaining food. Rokara asked Alistair questions about the darkspawn, and about how he defeated the last broodmother he faced. The way he talked about it, she believed that they would succeed, no matter what. He was confident in himself and his friends and confident in her. More confident than she felt herself.
As they talked and drank, Rokara could feel the warmth from the ale spread through her body. As her flagon drained, her confidence grew. So did Alistair's. They found themselves inching closer on the lounge whenever the other glanced away, and, soon, the conversation turned more personal.
'So your father was… he was King Maric?' she asked, clutching the flagon to her chest as she leant into the plush cushions of the lounge.
Alistair nodded, a smirk on his lips. 'Yep. I was the bastard son of the King and a serving maid. I never wanted to be King, though, and I was never going to claim the throne, even though I think Eamon wanted me to. Besides, Anora is a capable Queen,' he said, 'Eamon did his best, but his wife, Isolde, suspected that Eamon took an interest in my welfare because I was his bastard. Though her suspicions were unfounded, Eamon still sent me to the Chantry when she demanded it, and that's why I trained as a Templar.'
'What was life like in the monastery?'
'I guess it was like the Circle, in some ways at least. My lifestyle was restricted. I spent most of my time training. For a long time, I was taught to think a certain way. I don't know if all Templars experienced what I did, but I was… well, I was taught to hate the mages, to distrust them at every turn, but the doctrine never sat well with me. None of the doctrines did, really. A religious life wasn't really for me I guess.'
He sat up further as blush coloured her cheeks. She glanced away from him, a delicate finger tracing the rim of her flagon nervously as she worried her bottom lip.
'Could I what?' he asked, placing his empty flagon on the table before he leant into the cushions beside her, his arm resting over the wide back of the lounge.
'Well, could you…' she trailed off, and the flush on her cheeks brightened, 'there must have been female Templars.'
'Could I have relations with them?' He asked, and he felt heat rise on his neck when she nodded, 'well, I didn't. But I don't believe it's necessary to take any vows of celibacy as a Templar, and I certainly wasn't planning on it. I will admit that I did think about that kind of thing. If I had needed to take a vow, I would probably have been kicked out for impure thoughts if Duncan hadn't conscripted me. I guess that alone was a good sign I wasn't suited to a life of religious devotion.'
She laughed. 'I suppose so,' she said, 'you were young, though. I'm not surprised that celibacy wasn't high on your list of priorities.'
'True, not that I had much luck finding company in the monastery.'
'But you're not a virgin, are you?' She clapped a hand over her mouth as soon as the words had escaped her lips, her eyes wide with surprise at herself. 'I'm sorry, that was a bit forward. I just mean to say that you're, well, you're attractive, I mean-' She glanced away. 'What I mean is that I can imagine you've seen your fair share of beautiful women.'
'To be honest, after I was conscripted into the Grey Wardens, I didn't have much time to meet people. We were on the verge of a Blight. I spent most of my time fighting or securing the Grey Warden treaties,' he said, 'that, and the one person who I… well, they weren't interested in me. After the Blight, though, I did see two women, separately of course. It was nice, but it didn't last. I think they just wanted to bed me because I was the bastard son of a King, and a hero of the Blight.' A wry smirk tugged at his lips. 'What about you, did you have any relations with the other mages?'
She worried her bottom lip again, and he fought the urge to close the distance between them.
'I'm sure you know that relationships were discouraged, but it didn't stop things from happening in secret. The Templars may believe that they can be everywhere at once, but they can't,' she said. She took a final sip of her flagon and the placed it back on the table. She tucked her ankles beneath her and faced him fully, leaning against the back of the lounge. 'I had a fleeting romance with another mage, the elf that I first met when I arrived, but it didn't last. He wasn't a… attentive lover. But I guess I didn't mind as much as I should have at the time. The relationship itself was another way to disobey the Templars. I didn't love him.'
'Have you loved anyone?'
'In a romantic way? No,' she admitted, 'have you?'
'I… I was in love with Lilara. Or, I thought I was,' he said, 'I found out that she didn't feel the same. She… she and Morrigan fell in love. There'ss a reason the Grey Wardens must face the Archdemon. When a killing blow is struck, the Archdemon's soul seeks out the taint in the nearest darkspawn, reshaping it into the form of a dragon. It is virtually immortal. But, if the nearest tainted being already contains a soul, like a Grey Warden, the two souls can't coexist. They destroy each other.
'Before we faced the Archdemon, Morrigan told Lilara that there was a way to kill it without either of us having to sacrifice ourselves. There was a ritual: a Warden – me – could father a child with her. We would have been able to kill the demon without making the ultimate sacrifice, but Lilara refused. I heard them screaming at each other from my room, but I had no idea what it was about, not until…' He buried his head in his hands, a ragged breath dragging in his lungs. 'I could have saved her, but her love for Morrigan… she couldn't bear the thought of knowingly offering the woman she loved to another. Morrigan and I had never gotten along well, but after Lilara died, something inside her snapped. I still have nightmares about the battle, and I… I still hear her scream. The look she gave me when I tried to approach Lilara… not a day goes by I don't wish I had made the killing blow myself.'
'She made her choice, Alistair. Don't take that away from her. You told me to own my strength. Surely, you wouldn't take her agency away?'
He leant back against the couch, staring up at the stone ceiling. 'I… I hadn't thought about it like that.'
She slid from the lounge. 'Sometimes you just need a different perspective.' She walked to the hallway that led to their rooms, pausing. 'I… I enjoy talking to you. It's been a long time since I've had a friend.'
He pulled a smile over his lips. 'I enjoy talking to you too.'
Her heart skipped at the nickname, at the warmth in his gaze. She had to force herself to turn from him, her hands clutching at her chest. The way her name rolled off his tongue made her stomach flutter and churn with unfamiliar emotions. She allowed herself to wonder what being with Alistair would be like, but only for a moment. No matter how much she hoped, she knew that it was only that: hope.
Alistair sat on the lounge a while longer, staring up at the rough stone of the ceiling, his mind churning, his heart thumping loud and strong in his chest as he recalled the soft smile that lit her lips before she walked away. He knew what was happening. He had felt like this before, but he did not remember the sensation being so intense.
Emotions warred in him, breaking lose. He slammed his fist into the plush cushion of the lounge, but the release did little to sooth him. He rocked forward, his elbows on his knees as he scrubbed his hands through his hair. Before he knew what he was doing, he was on his feet. He stalked up the hallway, coming to the first bedroom. His hand grasped the knob, but he caught himself before he turned it. He took a shuddering breath as he leant his forehead against the cool surface of the door. He released the knob, clenching his fist tights tight at his side as he resisted the urges that warred inside him. He forced himself to turn away and march to the door across the hall.
He slammed the door, nearly ripping his tunic as he tried to take it off, throwing it across the room, his chest heaving as he stared at it, his mind flashing back to the phylactery when it shattered.
He dropped to his knees at the side of the bed, staring down, his mind a tempest.
'Maker help me…'
Rokara woke to a muffled yell. She sat up. She could see well in the dark room, but she was alone. She began to wonder if her mind was playing tricks on her, knowing it was probably just the remnants of her dreams. She began to settle back into the covers, but another short cry sounded in the quiet house, close enough that she could hear it despite the solid stone walls.
She slid from the bed, dragging on a tunic as she rushed into the hall. The door across from her was closed. She stepped towards it, wondering if she should open it, torn between modesty and concern, but when another harsh scream sounded from within, she grasped the knob and turned, throwing herself into the room.
Alistair writhed on the bed, the covers tangled around him. Even in the dark, she could see the sheen of sweat that covered his skin. He was fighting something, a nightmare engulfing his mind.
She rushed to his side, crawling onto the massive bed. She dodged his arm as it swung out at some unknown being and gripped his shoulders tightly, pinning his back against the bed with all her strength.
'Alistair!' she said, 'Alistair, wake up!'
'No!' he roared, 'not her!'
He tossed her backwards, too lost in the dream. She stared helplessly for a moment before she clambered back to his side. When her shaking did not wake him, she switched tactics. She stared at her hands before she entwined her fingers, forming a single fist before; using all her might, she slammed her hands into his chest.
His eyes flew open and he shot up, gasping for air, disoriented by his surroundings. His shoulders shook as he stared at her.
'Shh,' she whispered, reaching for his arm, 'you were having a nightmare, it's ok.'
'You died,' he whispered.
It was dark, and she knew his exhausted mind was seeing Lilara. Her chest tightened as he raised his hand, his calloused palm cupping her cheek.
'You died,' he said again through heavy breaths, his chest heaving, 'the broodmother, she… I saw you die. It was so real.'
'It was just a dream.'
He reached for her, dragging her into his crushing embrace. She barely had time to process what was happening when he claimed her lips, slanting his mouth over hers. Her arms wrapped tight around his neck, her body acting on its own as she met his demanding claim, his kiss rough, desperate. With one arm around her, the other sought her face, his calloused hand cupping her cheek for a moment before his fingers entwined in her hair at the nape of her neck. He pulled her closer, lifting her to straddle his lap, his arms wrapping tight around her slender waist.
He stole her breath with his passion, and she felt a fire ignite within her, stronger than she had ever felt. The heat of his body enveloped her, the warmth of his skin intoxicating. When he grasped her thighs and dragged her toward him, she gasped. His hands slid beneath the hem of her tunic, and a shiver rolled down her spine. She felt him swell beneath her and her body answered his desire with a moan that she did not recognise. She became aware of how he cradled her against him, of his calloused hands on her thighs, of the sparks that darted from her core to the very tips of her toes when he pulled her hips over his aching need. When she finally managed to pull back, they were both breathless. His eyes blazed in the darkness, locked onto hers, his hands stroking a line down her back.
Her eyes widened, the fog in her mind lifting as she drew air into her lungs. She pushed on his shoulders. 'Alistair, I–'
'Kiss me again,' he said, his voice gravelly now, filled with his desire, 'please, Roka. Please.'
'I can't,' she said, tears burning in her eyes. She pushed harder on his shoulders, freeing herself from his embrace. She slid off the edge of the bed before he could catch her in his arms again.
'I– I can't do this, Alistair. I know you loved Lilara, that you accepted her even though she was a mage, but she… she wasn't an apostate. She wasn't a– I won't hope that you could settle for an elf. You deserve better.'
She sprinted from the room, not daring to look back. She shut the door behind her, locking it. With her back against the door, she let her tears fall in abandon, her body shaking. She heard movement outside, and she clasped her hand over her mouth to stifle her sobs. The door creaked as Alistair leant against it on the other side.
'Roka, please open the door.'
The nickname rolled off his tongue, and her chest tightened once again, the sensation strangling her from within. She was falling for him. She had known it for longer than she cared to admit, but she would not hope that he felt the same. She could not convince herself that he could feel the same. For most of her life, caring for humans had only brought her pain and betrayal. She trusted Alistair wholly, but fear still plagued her. She had trusted Antonius once too.
She slid down to sit with her back against the door, tucking her knees to her chest as she cried. She had no idea that Alistair remained on the other side, his head resting against the door, and his heart breaking with every sob he heard through the frame.
Chapter 7: The Deep Roads
When Wynne woke, she sensed turmoil in the house. She dressed for a day of preparation, tying her hair back in her usual bun, unable to shake the unusual feeling around her.
She'd heard a cry in the middle of the night. Alistair had revealed in a letter that he was suffering from nightmares, so she suspected that it was his shout that she had heard. She had almost gone to him, but his cries had stopped shortly after she had woken to him, and she feared she would simply disturb his sleep more than his mind already had.
She'd heard movement before she had risen. Shale had knocked on her door to let her know of plans to go to the Shaperate for the day, and soon after she had heard footsteps in the hall. As she walked down the corridor, she was not surprised to find the doors to Rokara's and Alistair's rooms open.
When she entered the living room, Alistair was alone. The tension in the air was palpable, his emotions churning like a physical being in the aura around him. He was sitting on the edge of one of the lounges, his head in his hands. His shoulders appeared so tight that she feared the muscles in his back would snap if touched.
She approached quietly, sitting gently next to him on the lounge. He looked up, and she was surprised to see that his eyes were puffy. She touched his arms, drawing his hands from his head. He had a tendency to pull on his hair when upset.
'Alistair, what's happened?'
'How…' he trailed off, rubbing his face. 'Wynne, how do you convince someone of their worth? How do you convince someone that they're beautiful when they've spent so much of their life being told otherwise?'
'Are you talking about Rokara?' He nodded, and all her suspicions about them clicked into place. 'Oh, Alistair. I'm not sure I can answer that. She is a strong mage. I'm confident that she will find the courage within herself.'
He shook his head. 'I have to tell you something, but you must promise me that you will not say a word to anyone. She… she would never trust me again.'
'If she has trusted you with secrets, then you must keep them, Alistair,' she said, taking his hands, 'she may share them with me in time, but for now, she trusts you alone. Do not throw that away. I cannot tell you how to convince her of anything, but if anyone can, I have a feeling it will be you. You must give her time.'
Rokara kept herself busy during the day. She discussed the tactics of the upcoming battle with Bhelen, then assisted in packing the supply carts. They had no way to know which part of Ortan Thaig the broodmother was in yet. Bhelen wanted to be ready to dig in and camp in the Deep Roads. They would not leave until the broodmother was dead and the darkspawn and been cleared from the Thaig.
When she had done all she could to assist the preparations without simply getting in the way, she walked around the city. Although the dwarves were not quiet people by any stretch of the imagination, she found Orzammar peaceful. The towering ceilings and the magnificent architecture were unlike anything she had seen before, and despite the weight of the mountain above, it made her feel oddly safe.
Just like Alistair.
She shook the thought from her mind. For a moment, when he had drawn her into his arms and claimed her lips, she had allowed herself to imagine more, had felt hope bloom in her chest only for it to be silenced with the fear in her mind. Despite all she had told him, she witheld secrets from him, ones she would never share.
If he ever knew…
Once they killed the broodmother, she knew she would have to leave. Her chest ached at the thought, but she would not torment him any longer. It would take time, but he would forget her, she told herself. He would find a beautiful human woman and fall in love, and she would be a distant memory, a mistake he made in Orzammar that he longed to forget.
She did not return to the guest house until she was sure that Alistair and Wynne would be asleep. She crept in as quietly as she could, closing her bedroom door behind her. A lantern was still lit on her bedside table.
She stripped her clothes, physically and emotionally spent, but as she approached the bed, her eyes caught on something on the pillow. She sat on the edge of the bed, her fingers shaking as she reached to take the single rose in hand. The vibrant petals were velvety, and as she brought the rose to her chest, its sweet scent filled her nose.
Another gift from Bhelen? She wondered. She thought she had made her intentions clear.
She searched for a note but did not find one. As she placed the rose on the bedside table, something fell from inside the petals. She picked up the small carved piece of wood, tracing her fingers over it. She brought it closer, her hand covering her mouth as she stared, her eyes glazing with tears. She clutched the griffon to her chest, wishing the bed would engulf her as she cried herself to sleep once again.
The Deep Roads
They departed in the early hours of the next morning. Alistair tried to talk to Rokara, but she dodged his approaches, discussing the impending siege intently with the dwarven warriors that would join them in the battle. Wynne's words rang in his thoughts: you must give her time.
A mile back from the stable line in the Ortan Thaig they stopped the carts. The troops set about making their camp, assisting Rokara, Alistair, and Wynne. A group of Bhelen's men assisted them to set up near Bhelen's own, providing them bedding and some basic furniture as needed.
It had taken a few hours to reach the Thaig and set up camp, but the dwarves were getting restless. They were raring to fight, to make the final push into the Thaig and locate the broodmother.
Bhelen dispersed the orders to each division leader the moment the camp was sufficiently prepared. On the ready call, Alistair and Shale led the charge, Rokara and Wynne close behind. The dwarves flanked them, dispersing to reinforce the line. As they expected, the darkspawn were regrouping. As the line pushed forward, they destroyed all darkspawn they encountered.
Once they had cleared the areas near the camp, Alistair split the divisions off, sending them to search the deepest parts of the Thaig. They were to report back to Bhelen by morning with accounts on their sections.
Alistair, Rokara, Wynne, and Shale took a section for themselves. The walkways were quiet, the only sound the echo of their footsteps and the clank of Alistair's armour.
'The silence unnerves it,' Shale said, walking beside Alistair.
Alistair glanced up at the golem. 'Sort of,' he said, 'if there's a broodmother down here, she's unusually quiet or she knows we're coming.'
After more than an hour of walking, they reached the end of the tunnel they had followed, having encountered nothing except a skittish nug that bolted as soon as they got too close.
'Hopefully one of the other divisions has found something,' Wynne said. She sat on a rock, taking a moment to rest after the hurried hike to the end of the section. 'I suggest we rest before we turn back.'
'That sounds a fantastic idea,' Rokara said. She pulled a pouch of water from her belt, offering it to Wynne. They shared the water, catching their breath.
'Shall we continue? I forgot how slow travelling with squishy humans could be.'
'And yet you coped with my pace quite well, Shale.'
'It is an exception to my general distaste of the weak nature of humans.'
'You're too kind,' Wynne laughed. She stood. 'We should get back.'
They set out again, following the path back. Alistair and Shale bantered for a while ahead, and after half an hour of walking, Rokara found herself talking to Wynne once again.
'You seem reserved today.'
Despite her soft, even grandmotherly voice, Rokara knew that the old mage was probing.
'I have much to concentrate on. We are in darkspawn territory, after all, looking for a broodmother.'
'And yet, that is not where your mind is.'
Rokara glanced at her. 'No, it's not.'
'I won't ask where exactly your mind is. I'm sure you assume that I have already guessed. I will only give you some advice.'
'And what advice would that be?'
The older mage glanced to the leather cord around Rokara's neck. She had noticed the miniature carved griffon that hung close to her heart, the same one she had seen Alistair carving during the day after she had tried to comfort him. Rokara quickly tucked the crest back beneath her robes.
Wynne smiled knowingly. 'Follow your heart.'
Rokara pursed her lips. 'Wynne, there's something I need to tell you, but I'm worried you'll think very differently of me if I do.'
'I may be an old woman, but my mind is open.'
'I… I have lied to you. I'm not from the Janin Circle. You wouldn't remember me. I spent most of my time when I wasn't resisting the Templars in solitude.'
'What are you saying?'
'My name is not–' she glanced quickly to Alistair, making sure that he wasn't listening before she continued. 'I chose my name when I… when I fled the Circle Tower. You knew me as–'
'Sinistra.' Wynne's eyes widened. 'I knew there was something about you. My goodness child, you have changed so much. You were such a tiny thing, even as you reached womanhood.'
'I–' she bit her lip. 'I was never treated… well, in the Tower.'
'What do you mean?'
'The Templar Antonius, the one who brought me to the tower. Do you remember him?'
'Antonius Fenneric? I do. I heard that he died, quite recently. Darkspawn, I believe.'
'Yes. You know that I had served his household?'
'Something changed in him when he became a Templar. He had been like a brother, but they warped his mind. When he discovered I had magic in me, he hurt his parents to take me to the Tower.'
'I had heard they had tried to protect you, but I had never been sure until now.'
'He did everything in his power to hurt me or to starve me when he couldn't drag me off for a beating. The reason I was in trouble so often was because other mages would share their food with me, leading the Templars to believe that I was trading… favours, even at 12 years old, or I would be forced to steal food to get any. He made sure I spent as much time in isolation as possible.'
'But if you are Sinistra, that means that you've never–'
'Completed my Harrowing. No. If I stayed in the Tower, I never would have either. They were going to make me Tranquil.'
'But… you are such a fine mage. Your control is immense, especially considering you were only an apprentice when you escaped the Tower.'
'Antonius convinced them otherwise.'
Something flashed in Wynne's eyes. 'You're an apostate, then.'
'You stole your phylactery.'
'And destroyed it. You'll never find me if I run.'
'No, I would not, but neither would Alistair,' she said. The older mage sighed. 'I am not here to judge you, Rokara. I feel that you spend a lot of time doing that yourself, but your past is exactly that: the past. I know the Circle of Magi is not perfect. I have seen its many faces. I respect that you made your choice, and that choice will always be your own from now on. I stand by my advice.'
Wynne left Rokara to her thoughts, walking a little further ahead. As she walked in silence, she pulled at the leather cord that hung from her neck. She turned the carved griffon in her fingers, staring at it, and again she felt a spark of hope light inside her.
'I think we should stop for a moment,' Shale said at the front, 'I feel something, vibrations in the earth.'
Rokara returned the carving to the inside of her robes as they gathered together, listening intently. She could feel it now too; it was a faint but steady rhythm that danced beneath their feet, shaking the very rock on which they stood.
The vibration became stronger. Rokara glanced to her feet, watching as small stones bounced in time until the rhythm became so intense that rocks trickled down from the ceiling like hailstones.
'Whatever it is, I'm going to guess it won't be small.'
'The broodmother?' Rokara asked as they backed together.
'They are not very mobile. Does it know anything about darkspawn?'
'This is not the time to bicker,' Alistair snapped.
'I only asked if it knew about darkspawn. That is fair, is it not?'
'Shale!' Wynne cried.
A crash sounded in the tunnel, and stones and dust pelted them. Alistair raised his shield, and the mages used their sleeves to cover their face, protecting their eyes. Shale stood amongst the cloud, staring intently forward.
'It is an ogre.'
'A what?' Rokara hissed.
'An ogre. It looks rather angry. Shall we crush its head?'
'Good plan!' Alistair called. He straightened, his sword at the ready as the dust settled. 'All right, let's go!'
The ogre shook its head. It had crashed through the wall with great force, addling its brain, but it was quickly recovering, rising to its full towering height. Rokara had to shake herself. She had never seen an ogre outside of books, had never imaged in they could be so immense, so terrifying. It took all her willpower to steel herself for the fight, and when Wynne moved forward, she followed, the two mages casting from a distance as Alistair and Shale attacked the beast head on. Alistair slashed at its legs and lower torso while Shale pummelled it with massive fists. Alistair darted behind it, and the ogre turned to follow him when he bashed his shield again.
'It's too powerful for me to control,' Rokara called above its roars.
'You are a powerful mage, Rokara. I will protect Alistair and Shale. Use your strongest spells.'
Alistair pulled back, blocking a punch from the ogre with his shield.
'But what if–'
'They will be safe, I promise, now do it!'
Rokara grit her teeth. She raised her staff, drawing on her magic. She cried out as she brought forth an inferno.
A firestorm lashed the ogre, and it roared with fury. The wind whipped at Alistair, but he did not feel the heat of the flames that surrounded him. He stepped back, bashing his shield with his sword again, trying to taunt it, but it could not hear him above the roar of the flames. It hefted a boulder into its massive arms. He watched as it turned to face Rokara.
Alistair slashed the back of the ogre's ankle, making it stumble as he sprinted towards Rokara. He threw his sword to the ground, dropping low to charge, legs pumping as he ran. With a final roar behind him, the ogre threw the boulder with all its might.
He slid the last few metres towards her, wrapping his arm tight around her waist, bundling her up as he threw himself sideways. He tucked her petite frame against his chest as he fell, landing hard on his back and taking the force of the landing before he rolled her beneath him
The boulder crashed into the wall where she had been standing moments before, shattering. Alistair raised his shield to his shoulder, supporting it as rocks rained down. When they had finally stopped, he dropped his shield from his arm with a harsh growl of pain, collapsing, barely stopping himself from landing on Rokara. His breath was sharp with exertion, and when he opened his eyes dust scratched beneath the lids, but he felt no pain, not when he found gold staring back at him.
'I…' He brushed a thumb over her dirt covered cheek. 'I didn't think I was going to reach you.'
She felt her breath hitch as he leant closer, the hand that had traced her cheek cupping her, urging her up, but before their lips met he seemed to shake himself and pulled back. She ached at the loss of his touch, at the loss of his gaze as he glanced away from her and dragged himself to his feet. He offered his hands, helping her up from the rocky ground. He reached up to brush pebbles from her hair, but as quickly as he had raised his hand, he dropped it, the look in his eyes unfathomable. He turned from her, retrieving his shield and sword.
The sound of armoured men approached. One of the divisions filed through the opening made by the ogre.
'Ah, the cavalry has arrived,' Shale said.
The dwarf at the head of the group glanced at the body of the ogre. 'Well, that answers that question. Apparently, he didn't want to face this many dwarves.'
'Apparently not,' Shale replied, a note of exasperation in the golem's voice.
'The ogre came from your tunnel?'
The dwarf nodded. 'We flushed him out. Expected we'd have a fight on our hands, but after he charged through us.' The dwarf shrugged. 'Just kept going.'
'Lucky us,' Alistair said sarcastically, 'our route was clear. We're returning to camp.'
'Ours too now, but we'll do a final check as we march back.' He gave a small salute before the dwarves filed back whence they came.
'Well, now that excitement is over, we should get back,' Shale said, 'I didn't even get to crush its head, but I suppose its magic was useful.'
Shale turned, and Alistair followed.
'Are you alright, Rokara?'
'I'm fine Wynne, thank you. I think you best check on Alistair. Armour and shield aside, those rocks were heavy.'
Wynne nodded, squeezing Rokara's soldier before she quickened her steps to catch up to the warrior. 'Alistair, are you injured?'
'I seem to be in once piece, but I may get you to look at my shoulder again when we get back to camp.'
'You should be more careful, young man.'
He glanced back, that same look still in his eyes. 'It was worth it.'
'Alright, I'll take a look when we get back.'
'There is one thing… my shirt has a hole in it.'
'Would… would you fix it? When we get back to camp?'
'I am sure you are capable of mending your clothes, Alistair.'
'I know, it's just that, well, sometimes I pick up too much fabric and it ends up all puckered, and then it hangs wrong afterwards, and this is a new shirt from Bhelen. And you're, you know, grandmotherly. Grandmothers are good at that sort of thing, aren't they? You don't want me to have to fight the broodmother in a shirt with a hole, do you? It might get bigger.'
'Oh, alright. I'll mend it when we get to the camp.'
'Ooh! And while you're at it, the elbow could use some patching too.'
'Careful, young man or puckered garments will be the least of your problems.'
Rokara barely stifled a laugh.
'What does it laugh at?' Shale asked, walking beside Rokara. As the tunnel narrowed, Shale had fallen back.
'Oh, it's just their banter. If I didn't know better, I would swear that Wynne was his grandmother.'
Shale reached out a sturdy arm, slowing down. Rokara fell into step beside the golem, the gap between the two pairs widening.
'I must ask it, what does it intend to do with Alistair?'
Rokara glanced up. 'What do you mean?'
'I mean, does it intend to harm Alistair like the last human?' Shale asked, 'I have seen the way he looks at it, and I know what it means, even if your squishy emotions bore me.'
'I… no. No, I don't intend to hurt him Shale.'
'Then why does it not rub its body against Alistair? That is clearly what it wants to do.'
'It likes him, does it not?'
'I- well, yes. I do.'
'I suppose for a flesh creature, he is attractive, or so it would seem. I have seen other squishy people watch him when he walks around. Are you attracted to his soft shell?'
Rokara felt her cheeks heat at the blunt question. 'Yes.'
'Then what is the problem?'
'I'm a mage, and a- an apostate.'
'That is evident. But by all accounts, it is a good mage. Clearly then, that is not the real problem.'
This golem certainly was perceptive.
'Alistair is human,' Rokara said, 'I'm… not.'
'Also evident. Elves are considered a servile race, or so I have seen. You fear humans then?'
'No, I don't. I– you're twisting my words. I don't fear Alistair; I just think that he would be better off with someone else. Someone human.'
'I don't understand. Even if it is an elf, it clearly is brave. It killed an ogre. It also looks the same as any other flesh creature. What is the difference?'
'I… I don't know.'
'Obviously,' Shale said, and Rokara swore she heard the golem scoff, 'whatever it decides, I respect that it is honest with me. But, if it hurts Alistair, I will crush it.'
'I can respect that.'
They continued on in silence, steadily ascending from the depths of the Thaig. Although Rokara found the conversation confronting, she was growing to appreciate the golem's bluntness. It had given her much to think about.
Chapter 8: Reality
Ortan Thaig Base Camp
The Deep Roads
Alistair and Shale split from the group to report to Bhelen the moment they returned to camp. Rokara and Wynne retired to their tents, arranged around a common fire pit, both keen to have a moment to themselves.
Rokara was relieved to have a chance to remove her dusty robes. She quickly stripped to her smallclothes and shook the dirt from her hair, combining the fiery strands with her fingers a best as she could.
Some basic bathing supplies had been left in the tent for her while they were in the Deep Roads. She poured some water from the large pitcher into the basin, using the clean cloth which had been draped on the edge to scrub dirt from her face and eyes. She washed her body, then gingerly wiped her feet. They were blistered from the long treks they had done in recent weeks, the skin tender to the touch. She had considered taking a potion or asking Wynne to heal them, her own healing abilities spotty at best, but knew it would be futile: they would simply blister again with the amount of walking and fighting left to do.
She dried herself and began sorting through her small pack. She had packed some clothes to wear around the camp. Although she loved the dresses and robes that Bhelen kindly supplied her with, she had decided that something more sensible would be best. She pulled out a pair of soft leather trousers and a burgundy tunic.
'Rokara, Bhelen has–'
She held the tunic against her chest and spun on her toes in one motion, his sharp cry still echoing through the tent. Alistair stood with his back to her, his posture rigid. He wore only the bottom half of his armour, having handed his shirt to Wynne to mend.
'Alistair! Why didn't you knock?'
'How am I supposed to knock on a tent?' He said, and he nearly turned around in his frustration but seemed to stop himself with a yelp.
'You call out,' she said through gritted teeth.
'I'm sorry, I just- I didn't think.'
'Just- just don't turn around, okay?'
'I can do that.'
She watched him for a moment. Satisfied that he was statuesque enough, she pulled the tunic over her head.
'What's so important that you barged in here for anyway? Shirtless.'
Somehow, his shoulders stiffened further. 'Oh, ah, Bhelen asked us to have dinner in his tent tonight. There's not much we can do until the final divisions come back.'
'And you couldn't have told me that from outside the tent?' she asked as she quickly pulled her pants on. She tightened the lacing at the front, not wanting them to end up around her ankles.
'I… I wasn't thinking.'
She resisted the urge to say clearly, but she found herself tying the belt of the tunic slowly, unable to stop herself from gazing at his broad shoulders. He had placed his hands on his hips, making the muscles of his shoulder bunch and flex. He had a few scars scattered across his skin. Not surprising, considering he was a warrior, but she had to resist the urge to ask him how he got a particularly large line on his shoulder blade.
'Okay, you can turn around.'
He peeked slowly over his shoulder as if to confirm that she was indeed dressed before he faced her. When he turned fully, she felt her breath hitch. She could not deny that his – what had Shale called it? His soft shell? – Was something to behold. Although, she knew that he was not all that soft. His towering frame was roped with muscle toned from years of training and battle, his tanned skin smooth except for a few scars of varying age. She realised that he had to duck, the tent too short to accommodate his towering height.
Something hot welled inside her as her gaze lingered on his chest. She remembered the night in his room, remembered the feel of his skin beneath her hands, the way he had drawn her body tightly against his own and splayed his fingers over her back, urging her closer as he claimed her lips. She had felt his need, had cradled his body with her own so intimately. Despite everything, she found herself craving his touch once again.
'A… about the other night,' he said, 'when I–'
'When we kissed?'
'Yes, when we– I'm sorry if I hurt you. I have no excuse, but I…' His hands dropped to his side, his fists clenching tight. 'I did not mean to force myself upon you, Roka.'
He cleared his throat, stepping back before she could speak. 'I guess I should get changed. I'll see you at dinner.'
He flashed a nervous smile at her then ducked out of the tent, nearly crashing into the support pole in the middle of the entrance.
Alistair emerged from Rokara's tent, his eyes wide and cheeks flushed, another surprised cry escaping him when his eyes fell on Wynne. She sat outside her tent, paused mid-stitch, a grin on her face.
'Wrong tent, Alistair?' she asked, quirking a pale eyebrow at him.
His skin flushed impossibly brighter. 'Something like that.'
He turned on his heel, and Wynne stifled a laugh as he walked rigidly towards his tent, disappearing within.
'Ah, they'll work themselves out eventually,' she muttered, a smile on her lips as she shook her head. She picked up the thread again, continuing her repairs, the smile remaining on her face as she worked. She looked up only when Rokara exited her tent. They young mage sat across from Wynne, holding out her hands to the fire that crackled in the pit between them. Her feet were bare, but the rocky surface did not seem to bother her. When Wynne looked up, she caught the young mage's eyes.
When Wynne looked up, she caught the young mage's eyes. 'Come, sit beside me.'
Rokara hesitated, but after a moment she obliged the older mage.
'My eyes are not what they used to be,' Wynne said, 'but I can see well enough. You seem to have taken my advice on board.'
'I… you saw him leave my tent? Nothing happened if that's what you're suggesting. He came to tell me that we are to have dinner with Bhelen.'
'He could have told you that from outside the tent.'
'That's what I said,' she said with a sighed, kicking a small stone absently.
Wynne nudged Rokara's ribs with her elbow. 'I bet it wasn't entirely unwelcome.'
Roksasin's eyes widened. 'You're old enough to be his mother!'
'Indeed. And in some ways, I see him as a son, but, as I said, I can see well enough.'
Wynne chuckled. 'Have you thought about what I said in the Deep Roads?'
'Shale spoke to me also,' she said, 'are you two playing matchmakers?'
'My dear, no. You seem to be doing that just fine yourself. But Shale is observant. Shale has spent much of life observing.'
'I can agree with you there.'
'May I ask, what did Shale say?'
'Shale said.. that I look the same as any other flesh creature,' she said, 'but I don't, not really.' She pointed at her ears.
'Yes. I see them. So?'
This woman would be the death of her. 'Ok, fine!' she said, standing up in her frustration, 'I get it. You're able to look past it. But that doesn't mean that everyone else is.'
'What do they matter?'
'You can't answer, can you?' she said, 'you have faced a great deal of prejudice in your young life. I know it is hard to change what you have been conditioned to accept, but...' She turned away from Rokara, a smile on her lips. 'I think you'll find that a lot of people don't care what your ears look like, and those people are the only ones that matter.'
Rokara followed her gaze. Alistair was emerging from his tent. When he looked up, his eyes locked with hers, a flash of heat searing her to her very soul. He held her stare until her heart hammered in her chest, until she felt her breath catch in her throat. She only broke the contact when Wynne muttered beside her.
'Blasted needle,' she said, sucking on her thumb. When she opened her hand, blood pooled slowly on her fingertip.
'Let me finish that,' Rokara said, thankful for the distraction. She sat beside Wynne again, pulling the garment from the older mage's lap. Her slender fingers worked deftly as she finished repairing the hole with a few final. She tied off the knot, breaking the thread between her teeth before she returned the needle to Wynne and stood up, walking to Alistair.
She held out the shirt. 'All fixed.'
'Thanks,' he said, a smile catching on his lips, 'are you ready to go to dinner? Bhelen's tent is just over here.'
'My stomach says yes.'
He smiled, turning back to place the bundled shirt in his tent. He offered his arm as he had on the first night after they arrived in Orzammar, and she felt her heart skip.
As they walked away together, Wynne stood to follow, a soft smile lighting her lips. They're going to be just fine.
Even in the Deep Roads, the King was a fantastic host. He fed and watered them well, providing roasted meat, earthen vegetables, and a steady supply of dwarven ale.
'As of two hours ago, three divisions remain in the Thaig, but their tunnels were longer than some of the others. I expect that they will all return during the early hours of the morn, one with news of the broodmother,' Bhelen said, 'the other reports I have received have been promising. The forces that held the line while we prepared suffered only one injury from an ogre, though I hear that the four of you managed to kill it.'
'We did. It made quite the entrance,' Shale remarked. Although the golem didn't eat, it had joined the dinner, standing at the end of the table.
Bhelen laughed, 'I heard that also.'
'Apart from the ogre, we didn't see many darkspawn.'
'I'll take that as good news, that we have narrowed the search. Some divisions encountered a few stragglers but by all accounts, they were quickly dispatched. I would assume it will be the group which finds the broodmother tunnel that will have faced the most darkspawn.'
'Your soldiers are formidable, Bhelen,' Wynne said, 'I am certain we will see them all return.'
'I hope so. You should all get some rest. I sense a battle in our future. I would not want any of you lagging in it; I am trusting you all to be part of the first charge.'
They each said goodnight.
'I think I shall watch the training,' Shale said as the four companions turned towards their section of the camp, 'I do find it entertaining to watch you creatures flail at each other.'
The golem wandered off towards the clash of weapons and hearty shouts.
'The feeling of fire before a battle,' Wynne said as they approached their tents, 'I must admit that it's growing weaker.'
'You've got plenty of fight in you yet, Wynne,' Alistair said with a grin.
'I shall hope so. I know you'll both be pouring over that tactical plan that Bhelen has drawn up, but don't stay up too late.'
'Goodnight to you both,' she said, disappearing into her tent.
The flaps closed behind the old mage and Alistair nudged Rokara's arm. 'Come on, I have a desk in my tent. We'll set up there.'
He entered first, and she followed. His tent was slightly larger than hers, or at least taller; he could almost stretch to his full height inside. He pulled the desk out from the side of the tent, spreading the sheets across it. He could easily reach both sides of the table top, his hands gripping the edges to support himself as he looked over the map.
'From what Bhelen said, these are the three tunnels still being searched,' Alistair said, beckoning Rokara closer until she stood opposite him. He pointed to the sections on the map. 'The darkspawn want to protect the broodmother, so this tunnel...' He placed his finger on the entrance then slowly traced it to the end. 'While technically not the longest, is the deepest. I think that's where they broodmother will be.'
'It looks quite narrow.'
'It is, although I know that particular tunnel is quite high, especially through here,' he said, tracing the section he referenced, 'if there are darkspawn protecting the broodmother, which I suspect there will be, we can set up a shield wall here. Archers can fire over the wall to clear out most of the force before we advance. If we do it right, we shouldn't have any casualties, and injuries can be kept to a minimum.'
'That would be ideal. Wynne and I could also stun the force as much as possible. If I ice the ground, Wynne should be free to reinforce the strength of the shield wall, and it'll be difficult for them to keep their footing. It may even make it easier for the archers to coordinate their bombardment, especially if we have two or three contingents rotating their fire.'
'That's an excellent idea. You'd make a good Grey Warden.'
'I'm not sure they'd accept an apostate in their ranks.'
'Grey Warden's take people talent, apostate or not. I'd recruit you into the Wardens.'
'You know me, though. Besides, I'm still an elf, remember?'
'I've met several Elven Wardens.'
'Really. You still seem so surprised that there are people who like elves.'
'I know that not everyone is like the Templars, Alistair, but there are still plenty of people who are prejudiced against elves. And, I guess, in the Circle, I just got used to being treated poorly,' she said, glancing down, 'Antonius used to encourage them to call me knife-ear.'
The desk creaked as Alistair's grip tightened on the edges. 'If anyone and I mean anyone, ever calls you that again…' He reached up. For a moment she thought that he was going to cup her cheek, and she felt her breath hitch at the thought of his hand on her skin. Instead, he gently brushed his thumb over the top edge and peak of her ear, the skin so sensitive that a shiver rolled down her spine and her eyes flutter closed. When she found the strength to open them again, his gaze was fixed upon hers, something dark lurking within. 'I swear to you, Roka, I will cut out their tongue. Slowly. With something blunt.'
'I like it when you call me Roka,' she whispered as he trailed his fingers along her jaw, and before her eyes, his gaze grew heated. He tried to retract his arm but she caught his hand, leaning into his touch. 'Alistair, about our kiss–'
He pulled from her grasp and rubbed the back of his neck before he dropped his hands to the desk, doing all he could to avoid her gaze. 'I know, I'm sorry. I've never done that before, kissed someone like that. I was just so relieved that you were beside me, and I–'
She placed a finger on his lip, silencing him. He lifted his gaze to stare at her with wide eyes. 'Listen,' she said. She waited a moment more until he nodded, then dropped her hand. 'Despite how much I've tried, I've thought of nothing but that kiss. I've… I've felt trapped by my race, by my power, for so long. One of the people I trusted most in this world betrayed me. I am scared, Alistair. I'm scared that you'll turn me away because I'm a mage. I'm scared because I know that people will judge you for being with me and that one day you'll find a beautiful human woman and–'
'Roka, you are the most beautiful woman I have ever laid eyes on,' he said. His voice was rougher now, and she heard the desk creak under his grip again. 'From the moment I first saw your face in that cave, I have ached for you. I have…' he bit his lip, wondering if he should say what he was thinking. She cupped his cheek and he found her golden gaze, the shimmering pools hardening his resolve.
'Yes?' she said, her voice barely a whisper.
'Roka I… I am not ashamed to say that I have taken myself in hand to thoughts of your touch, and when I saw you in the tent before, I… I have entertained thoughts so impure that I have sullied the vows I never took.'
The heat in his gaze enveloped her. When his eyes trailed to her lips, she felt it like a caress.
'Tell me you need me, Roka,' he said, his voice low, hungry. He caught her hand, the stubble along his jaw rasping against her palm as he turned his head to press his lips to her soft skin. 'Tell me you need me, and I am yours.'
She swallowed hard as she met his avid gaze. 'Kiss me.'
The table clattered as he threw it aside. His hands grasped her hips, crushing her body to his. She wrapped her arms around his neck, holding him tightly as his arms surrounded her, drawing her up onto her toes so that he could claim her lips, his mouth slanting against hers. He reached to tangle his fingers in her hair as he deepened the kiss, his tongue stroking hers, awakening a fierce passion deep within her. She ignited at the thrilling caress, at the heady demands of his tongue as he devoured her moan with a ravenous hunger that left her gasping for more.
His calloused fingers brushed her skin beneath her tunic, his palm flattening on her back to draw her tighter against his chest. He broke the kiss as his other hand released her fiery hair to delve beneath her tunic, caresses roaming over her sides, her back. She burned at his touch, at the roughness of his palms, and she ached at the loss of his touch as he caught the hem of her shirt, stripping it from her body. His eyes drifted, searing her alabaster skin wherever they roamed as he reached behind her, touch gentle as he untied her smallclothes to bear her to his gaze, his eyes never leaving her body as the fabric fluttered to the floor.
'Roka...' he whispered, hands returning to her waist, drawing her tight against his chest again. His hands trailed to grip her thighs, and she gasped as he pulled her up against his body, coaxing her to wrap her legs around his waist. She bit her lip, barely stifling a whimper as his hands moved to cradle her arse, fingers splaying, the action grinding her hips against his. She felt him swell and stiffen, his body reacting to the heat at the apex of her thighs, to the sweet friction he found as he dragged her against his shaft again.
He turned, dropping to his knees at the base of the mat. He eased them down, laying her out before him. He stole a kiss before he knelt between her thighs, stripping his shirt to reveal his battle-hardened body. It didn't matter that she had seen him shirtless before; she was hit anew by a wave of desire as his muscles rippled beneath his sun-kissed skin. He threw the shirt behind them, uncaring of where it fell before he lowered himself over her again, settling his hips between her thighs.
He claimed her lips again, the stroke of his tongue matched by the slow roll of his hips. His calloused palm trailed down her supple stomach, and her skin tingled beneath the slow caress of his hand, her body arching to his touch. As he pulled on the tie of her pants, he dropped his lips to her neck, his tongue tracing a line along her collarbone and over the swell of her breast. She moaned as his tongue traced her nipple, the sound turning to a broken cry as he nibbled and sucked at the sensitive tip. Her fingers filtered through his short hair, holding his head close as he trailed his lips across her chest. He took her other nipple into his mouth, teeth grazing, stimulating, teasing as his warm hand cupped her other breast, massaging her until her centre clenched with need. When he pulled back she nearly cried out from the loss of connection but his fingers dipped below the waist of her pants, stripping them from her legs along with the final piece that would conceal her.
He gazed down at her, a profound hunger in his eyes. Her lips were swollen from his kiss, her delicate cheeks flushed with desire. Her slender body trembled at his touch as his hand slid down her thigh.
'Maker's breath, but you are beautiful,' he whispered, his eyes meeting her golden stare, 'I am a lucky man.'
His hands trailed to her knees and he coaxed her to part her legs further for him before he dropped to trail his lips over her stomach, over the soft curls at the apex of her thighs as he settled before her luscious sex. He nearly moaned at the sight of the soft pink lips, at the dusting of fine fiery hair that framed her slit, her delicate flesh glistening in the soft lantern light, her body wet and wanting.
'Roka, I have never tasted a woman before,' he said, his eyes finding hers, 'I want… to taste you. Would you let me?'
Her golden eyes sparkled, her breath shallowing at the sight of him poised over her, eyes flooded with his desire. Flat teeth nibbled her bottom lip and, after a moment of hesitation, she nodded.
He dipped his mouth to her core, unsure of how to begin, but eager to please his beautiful mage. He nuzzled the fine curls, dipping his tongue into the sweet pink flesh. She trembled at the first slow lick, the firm tip of his tongue darting over her clit, his groan vibrating right to her core as he delved deeper, near maddened by her honey.
She whimpered at his kiss, her hips arching at the sensations as he learned her body with slow, soft licks. At her moans, he grew bolder, unleashing the control he maintained for fear he would hurt her. He licked and sucked her delicate flesh in abandon, her legs falling wide, body opening for him as she trembled. Her hands found his hair, fingers winding into the soft strands, nails scraping over his scalp as she wordlessly urged him to continue. His cupped her arse, lifting her hips to his mouth, to the wicked stroke of his tongue as he lapped at her desire like a man wild with thirst. When he circled her clit, his name fell from her lips like a prayer, a whimper catching in her throat as her body clenched with need. Fire curled deep inside her, her back arching as her loins crackled and burned, her breath coming in sharp pants as he brought her to her peak, a final hard lick tipping her over the edge.
She cried out as her orgasm rippled through her. His attention never turned from her body, his tongue lapping at her core, delving into her entrance. Her body jerked at the intensity of the pleasure he gave as he wrung her climax from her body with a relentless rhythm. As her climax began to subside, her skin tingled, darts of electricity reaching her toes, her feet curling as he continued to stroke her, his tongue swirling around her clit to bring her to the edge once more. He slowed, holding her there as he explored her.
He gently lowered her hips to the mat. Although one hand moved from her hip, the other pinned her down. He stopped his sensual assault, his lips trailing to kiss the supple curve of her thigh. He slid his finger over her slick core, coating the digit in her climax before he pressed into the centre of her need. His finger filled her, pumping slowly, stroking where his tongue could not reach as his mouth returned to her clit. Her back arched off the mat but he held her hips down as he eased deeper into her sweet flesh, learning her body in a way no one ever had.
He eased a second finger into her tight core and a moan she did not recognise tumbled from her lips. She tried to roll her hips, to urge him to quicken his strokes as she felt her nerves clench, preparing for another climax, but he withdrew his finger. She moaned her frustration, her body aching at the absence of his intimate touch. She lifted her head, watching as he untied his pants and pushed them down his hips. When his erection sprang free, she bit her bottom lip, her stomach fluttering as she gazed upon his thick shaft.
Alistair watched her intently as she rose to her knees. She spread her delicate hands over his chest, his muscles dancing as she trailed her fingers down the muscled expanse to his hips. When she wrapped her fingers around his shaft, his body trembled. His thick length pulsed in her hand, a harsh groan falling from his lips as she stroked him tentatively. His hands cupped her cheeks and he bent his head to hers, a deep moan rumbling through him as she sought to learn his body as he had hers.
She pressed her lips to his chest, gently rolling her hand in her strokes, his hard body shaking with need. Her skin was so soft as she gently stroked him, and her gaze fell to her hand. She was captivated by the soft skin that glided up and down his shaft with every stroke, by the glistening bead of pre-cum that crowned the head. She licked her lips instinctually, wanting to know what he tasted like, but he drew her gaze up.
'Roka,' he breathed, his lips trailing to her ear. His breath was hot against her skin, a shiver rolling down her spine as he brushed his stubbled cheek against the sensitive tip. He grazed his lips over the top edge, remembering how she had reacted to his touch. His hands trailed down her arms, one taking her wrist, pulling her hand from his aching cock before he lost control, his other arm wrapping around her wrist. He laid her back on the mat, his hips between her thighs. His length settled against her slick core, and he struggled to rein himself in as she arched her body to cradle his heavy erection. He grasped his shaft as he eased the throbbing head through the delicate folds of her flesh, coating himself in her arousal, in the pleasure he had given her.
He angled his hips, the head of his cock finding her centre. He thrust slowly, easing into her luscious little cunt, a fierce shudder taking hold of his body as the heat of her walls enveloped him. She moaned as he filled her, his heavy shaft stretching her, his cock so thick that she feared she would not be able to take him, but the deeper he pushed, the more her body opened to him. She took him eagerly, rolling her hips until she felt the thick head meet the deepest part of her core. She had never experienced such fullness, her breath hitching, her nails clawing at his back with need. Her hands trailed to his toned hips, then to his fine cheeks.
When she gripped his arse, her nails biting into his flesh, he bucked forward with a broken moan, sliding them along the mat with the force of his thrust. He pulled her hands from his skin, pinning her wrists above her head as he found his rhythm. He claimed her lips with a searing kiss, and she moaned, tasting herself on his tongue as he ravaged her mouth, his chest rubbed against her aching nipples, his hips grinding against hers in a relentless rhythm.
He dropped his hands to her waist, rising on his knees, lifting her hips to drive deeper inside her. She cried out at the new angle, the cry turning to a scream as he took a hand from her hip, his fingers spreading over her belly, trailing down until his thumb slid between her delicate lips to tease her clit. Her hands clutched the top edge of the mat, desperate for something to hold onto as he plunged into her again and again.
The tent filled with the sound of their ragged breaths, with their moans, with the carnal slap of their skin meeting in abandon. His eyes trailed up the length of her body, past her slender waist, over the soft swell of her breasts that bounced in time with his thrusts, past her lips which were still swollen from the kisses they had shared. His gaze settled on her golden eyes, captivated by the passion he found swirling within them. In the dimly lit tent, they glowed like fire, and he held her focus, watching the moment she tipped over the edge.
Her back when rigid as her orgasm rippled through her, her slick walls clenching impossibly tighter around his shaft as she arched off the mat. He rode her through her climax, back bowing, heavy sack tightening with promise as he chased his end release. As his hot seed spilt deep inside her, a harsh cry ripped from his chest and he roared her name, her sweet cunt wringing the last of his orgasm from his pulsing shaft.
He eased her hips down, his body shaking from the intensity of the pleasure that sparked and danced on his skin. He would have collapsed atop her if he had not caught his weight on his elbows. He swept fiery strands from her face, her forehead damp with sweat from their exertion. He brushed the back of his fingers against her cheek as he gazed down at her, her eyes fluttering closed for a moment as she tried to catch her breath.
His kiss was softer now, and he lingered on her lips before he trailed kisses over her cheek, to her ear. When she shivered, he could not hide a smile.
He found the strength to pull away from her, but only to find a clean cloth.
'It's my mess, Roka,' he said as he sat beside her, 'I'm not going to leave you with it.'
She felt her cheeks flush as he gently wiped her delicate flesh. The only other man she had been with had come and gone, or so to speak, but Alistair gently cleaned her skin before he tended to himself. When he had finished, he laid beside her, drawing her to his side, his skin healed from their love-making.
Her fingers traced absent patterns across his chest, his skin shivering in the wake of her touch. He pulled back a little when something pinched his skin. A cord hung around her neck, the same strip that had once held her phylactery. He tucked his finger beneath the cord, pulling gently on the leather. Tied on the end was the griffon he had carved.
'You've worn it since–'
'Since the night you left the rose in my room,' she said, placing a soft kiss on his chest, 'yes.'
'Roka,' he whispered, 'I…'
He could not find the words. He claimed her lips, trying to express in his kiss all that he wanted to say. He tucked her against him, holding her slender body so tightly he feared he might break her, but she squeezed back just as hard. As their breaths slowed, she listened to his heartbeat, drifting off in his arms to the steady rhythm that matched her own.
Chapter 9: The Quest
Alistair woke feeling warm and content, a sigh rumbling in his chest. When he opened his eyes to a wall of fiery-red hair, he did not startle; he wrapped his arm tighter around Rokara's waist, drawing her slender body tighter against his chest. He swept her hair from her neck, his lips brushing over the her supple skin. She shivered as she began to stir, his soft kisses waking her, and she stretched languidly against him. When she twisted her hips, he had to bite his bottom lip, his body already awake to her movements.
'Roka,' he whispered, placing a kiss on her ear, a smile breaking on his lips as she giggled, 'Ro-ka.'
She rolled to face him, attempting to bury herself in the warmth of his chest. She looped a slender leg over his hip, her body cradling him.
'You're doing that on purpose,' he said as she wiggled against him.
She lifted her head, nibbling her bottom lip. 'Guilty.'
The fire in her golden eyes ignited him, his breath catching as soft curls tickled his swelling shaft. It took all his strength to stop himself from flipping her to her back when she rocked her hips forward, capturing his length between her thighs.
'I would spend the day exploring every inch of your skin.'
She looked up, quirking an eyebrow at him. 'Would?'
'Unfortunately, despite the demands of my…' He glanced down between their bodies. 'Well, we still have a broodmother to kill.'
'Well, if I can't have you now, then the moment we get back to Orzammar we're locking ourselves in a room and making love until we're hoarse from screaming each other's name.'
He felt his body pulse at her words, his hip jerking in response. 'You have a wicked tongue.'
Her eyes flashed. 'So do you.'
He growled, rolling her lithe body beneath him, pinning her hips with his own. He claimed her lips, his teeth grazing the plump flesh and she moaned against his mouth, her body arching.
'This is not getting ready for a battle,' she said, her voice muffled between kisses.
He groaned, dropping back reluctantly. She sat up, kicking aside the cover so she could hunt for her smallclothes. She slipped them on, looking around the darkened tent for her pants. She pulled them on and found her shoes, then finally found her tunic buried beneath Alistair's. She pulled it on, running her fingers through her hair to straighten out the strands. She cupped his stubbled cheek as she crouched down beside him, taking a final kiss.
'I'm going to go get ready. Come join me for breakfast, okay?' she said before she headed to the exit of the tent.
When Rokara broke through the flaps, a polite cough greeted her. She froze, glancing sideways to see Wynne perched outside her tent, Shale standing by her side. They each quirked an eyebrow, and a knowing smirk lit the old mage's lips.
'Seems you took my advice.'
Shale glanced down at Wynne. 'Did they finally rub themselves together?'
'It would seem so.'
Rokara smiled meekly, bailing into her tent.
Bhelen compiled his best men, and the four companions gathered together to make their final preparations for battle. They discussed the strategy in detail, including the additions that Alistair and Rokara debated the night before. As Alistair had suspected, the contingent sent to the deepest tunnel in the Thaig had discovered signs of the broodmother, reporting back in the early hours of the morning. Although they had only encountered a small number of darkspawn, they reported evidence of a fresh brood.
Satisfied with the preparations, the dwarves and their companions began their march into the depths of the Thaig. It would be a steady two to three-hour hike down into the deepest section, with Alistair and Bhelen leading. Rokara, Wynne, and Shale formed a line behind, ahead of Bhelen's men.
As they neared the deepest part of the Thaig, a familiar scent filled Alistair's nose.
'It's down here,' he said, glancing to Bhelen, 'we're close.'
Alistair pulled his shield from his back and unsheathed his sword. Bhelen followed his actions, preparing to face whatever would greet them in the tunnel ahead.
'I can hear something,' Rokara said.
The tunnel hummed now, louder with each step they took. Everyone was on high alert as Alistair's announcement filtered through the contingent. The dwarves' excitement was palpable in the air.
The tunnel rumbled ahead, and a deep growl sounded. Rokara glanced to Wynne, the older mage nodding. Shale moved forward as the mages filtered to the sides, the shield bearers marching ahead, ready to form the defensive line. The grunts of the broodmother became louder, screeches and growls intermingling with the eerie sounds.
When they rounded a corner, Rokara was greeted with her first look at the broodmother. Even far down the tunnel, she was truly monstrous, her massive body shaking with every movement. Tentacles reached up from the ground, flailing slowly as the broodmother observed its darkspawn brood.
Alistair held up his hand. They were far enough back not to be noticed. The dwarves had been briefed before they left: if they kept quiet and stayed back, they would maintain an element of surprise, the darkspawn too distracted by their brawling.
'Genlocks,' Alistair whispered.
'As I feared,' Bhelen said, 'a dwarf, probably a scavenger.'
'Not anymore,' Shale said.
Alistair turned, pushing back behind the line with Shale. The small army marched slowly forward in formation until the shield bearers lined up, preparing the barricade. Behind them, archers strung their bows loosely, forming three lines. Rokara and Wynne stood to the sides, ready to control the darkspawn and reinforce the defence.
'On my signal, we engage,' Bhelen said, the orders moving back through his men. He raised his sword, his arm steady. Bow strings tightened beside Rokara, the first line of archers at the ready.
The King dropped his arm.
The arrows whistled softly as they sailed over the barricade. When they hit home and the first dakspawn dropped, the tunnel fell silent and the broodmother turned her heavy head. Her screech was deafening and the genlocks turned as one towards the dwarven force. The shield bearers braced, a second barrage of arrows flying as the genlocks charged. The arrows felled the initial charge, but more followed.
'Forward!' Alistair roared.
The shield bearers lifted, marching ahead a few feet before they formed again. The line moved forward, swiftly dispatching the genlocks that charged until they came face to face with the broodmother.
The shield bearers parted. Alistair, Shale, and Bhelen rushed ahead, while Wynne cast her strongest protective spells and Rokara charged her staff with flames and brought forth a firestorm. The inferno whipped at the tentacles that rose from the stone floor, the broodmother's screech filling the cavernous space. The archers retreated to the back, sword bearers rushing to join the fray, trusting in Wynne's magic and the strength of their armour to shield them.
Rokara climbed onto a rock, looking for a better vantage point from behind the shield bearers. With a better line of sight, she shifted her focus to control, freezing as many tentacles as she could. They shattered under the might of dwarven steel. The broodmother's strength was faltering under the strength of the assault. She lashed out at Alistair, Shale, and Bhelen, but she was slower now, clumsy in her weakening state.
The firestorm subsided, and as the air cleared Rokara prepared to light the room again, but movement behind the broodmother stopped her spell. Shadows flickered menacingly behind her massive form.
We're not at the end of the tunnel.
'Incoming!' she screamed above the clash of steel, but the call came too late. A hoard marched forward, armed with the weapons of centuries of fallen dwarves. The genlocks rushed to guard their falling broodmother, surrounding the fighters at the fore.
'Rokara, duck!' Wynne shouted just before the genlocks fired their crossbows. The shield bearers blocked the lower shots, but others sailed over the barricade. Rokara felt an arrow sail past her ear, clipping the sharp tip. Pain seared her, and she reached up instinctively, blood coating her palm.
Genlocks rushed the shield wall, stabbing through any gap they could find. Wynne stumbled back, losing sight of the melee.
Instinct flooded Rokara. She rushed forward, pushing through the line. She froze any creature in her path, shattering some as she neared the broodmother. She stared up at the monster, and it turned to her, raising an arm to attack.
Rokara planted her staff in the stone at her feet, raising her bloodied hand. A cry wrenched from her lips as she cast her spell, her magic surging sharply in the air. She felt her strength drain as the genlocks froze in place, their bodies twitching as their tainted blood boiled within their veins. The cavern seemed to grow quiet, the screeches of the dying genlocks muffled in her ears. Monsters fell around her, the clash of weapons slowing. She watched as the broodmother slumped forward, her massive body lifeless, drained of its final breath.
She gripped her staff tightly as black spots danced in her vision, her legs collapsing beneath her. She dropped to her knees, her staff falling at her side as she lost her grip. She could see movement around her, and the dwarves turned to coloured streaks as they hurried to help their friends.
When she saw his winged helmet rise above the stocky fighters, relief washed through her. He lowered his shield, his eyes finding hers among the din of celebration. When their gazes met, he dropped his weapons, pushing aside the dwarves that blocked his path, struggling to reach her.
He's alive, she thought, her vision clouding with black, unaware that the scream that filled her ears came from Alistair.
'Rokara,' a voice called softly in her sleep, 'Rokara, wake up.'
She dragged her eyes open, blinking against the grit that scratched beneath her eyelids. When her eyes finally adjusted, she found Wynne looking down at her.
'You gave us an awful fright, young lady,' the old mage said, slowly coaxing Rokara up from the cold stone ground.
Rokara rubbed at her eyes before she glanced around. They were still in the cave, bodies littered around them. Dwarves bustled around, tending to the wounded or preparing for the march back to the camp.
'It's over?' Rokara asked. Wynne nodded and helped Rokara to her feet, handing the young mage her staff.
'Did I… faint?'
'Yes, but only for a few minutes,' Wynne said, 'you're a strong mage to have cast that spell.'
Rokara glanced at her bloodied hand. 'I guess so.'
'I had no idea you knew Blo–'
'Where's Alistair?' Rokara interrupted. She couldn't bear to hear the words, was sure that moment Wynne uttered them that her friends and the dwarves would turn against her.
Wynne nodded, looking in his direction. Rokara felt a fierce relief flood her senses, a smile tugging at her lips. Despite the gore that coated his armour, he was safe, but her smile faltered at his gaze. After everything they had been through, she had hoped that he might accept this part of her, but the vacant stare that filled his eyes as the dust settled was soul crushing.
She started towards him. 'Alistair.'
'We'll talk about this when we get back to Orzammar,' he said. He did not meet her gaze, his face blank, his eyes glazed over. He turned from her, marching away to gather the forces.
They returned to the camp in silence, the long march heavy with Rokara's fear. Wynne tried to pull the younger mage aside, but she brushed her off. She knew that she was already going to be judged. She could take none from the mage beside her, someone she had grown to respect so highly.
At the camp, with victory secured, the pack up began. Some dwarves remained to celebrate, but Bhelen led the way from the Deep Roads with Alistair at his side. It was a long hike after so much exertion, but Rokara was relieved when they reached the city. She was one step closer to the surface.
Chapter 10: Complete
Royal Guest House
Diamond Quarter, Orzammar
As soon as Rokara entered the guest house, she rushed to her room. She slammed the door closed, leaning against it for a moment as she tried to gather her churning thoughts. Her eyes burned with tears, but she refused to let them fall.
She rushed to pack the necessities she would need to survive a trek through the mountains, quickly changing into a fresh set of robes. As much as she had allowed herself to hope for a future in which she would finally feel safe and loved, she knew deep down that had been a fantasy. She had survived the fall from the Circle Tower, survived the harsh winters of the Frostback Mountains - she would do it again.
She had to.
Word would spread of the maleficar that helped the dwarves, and the Templars would come. They would hunt her, and they would fail.
She dropped her pack against the doorframe with her wolf fur coat and bear fur. She kicked off her shoes and they thumped into the wall a few feet away. As she searched the rest of her room for a pair suitable for mountain hiking and any other necessities, a knock sounded on the heavy door.
'Leave me!' she yelled.
The door opened and she spun on her heels as Alistair entered. He closed the door behind himself, leaning against the frame, his head bowed. Her heart sank in her chest and her stomach churned when he did not meet her gaze.
'I know what you're going to say, Alistair,' she said, feeling lost in the centre of the room, 'but when I met you, I had already decided not to use Blood Magic anymore. I knew you would never accept me if you found out. I was an apprentice when I escaped. I knew enough magic to get me by, but I had no concept of just how powerful I could become, or how powerful I would need to be. I never even wanted to do Blood Magic, swore I would never succumb to it, but you don't survive in the Frostback Mountains as a mage for as long as I did without it. The first time I cast a blood spell, it was instinct. My coat wasn't pieced together one wolf at a time. They followed my scent for days, surrounding me when I was too exhausted to run anymore. One moment I was cowering, waiting for them to take the first bite, and the next, I was surrounded by dead wolves.'
He stalked towards the desk, his back to her. His shoved his fingers through his hair, gripping tight before he dropped his hands to his sides. She watched him for a moment, studying the emotions that played out in the way his body moved. Without his armour, she could see his shoulder muscles tighten beneath his shirt, his hands balling into fists. He slammed them down, making the items on the desk jump.
'Come on, Alistair,' she said, anger sparking inside her, 'do it. Call me a maleficar. Call me a knife-ear. The words are burning in your mouth, so just spit them out. I would love to see you cut out your own tongue, or was that just a lie? I've heard it all, Alistair, and I've been lied to before,' she snarled the words, reaching into her robes. As tears started to burn in her eyes, she ripped the cord from her neck, clenching it tightly in her fist. She stared at the emblem, and the fight left her voice. 'You can stay in your perfect little world because you wouldn't last one second in mine. If you had experienced even half the hatred I have faced in my life, you would have thrown yourself off the top of the Circle Tower. Maker knows I nearly did.'
As she tried to leave, he grasped her wrist. She levelled her eyes on his hand. She could not use force to escape, his grip too tight. He could break her, and he knew it.
'Let me go, Alistair.'
'You could have died.'
'But I didn't,' she snapped, 'what else was I supposed to do? We were surrounded. Should I have let Bhelen's men die? Let Wynne and Shale die? Let you die? You were so shaken by a nightmare of my death that you screamed in your sleep. Now imagine you had to live it. What would you have done to save me?'
'Anything? Even if it went against your beliefs?'
'Yet you condemn me for doing the same. You may not have taken your vows, Alistair, but deep down, a part of you is still a Templar.'
'No,' he said, 'no. I would never…' He seemed to choke on his words. 'You have to understand–'
'No, I don't. I have spent my entire life trying to understand the hatred of others. It doesn't matter how much I lo– it doesn't matter how I feel about you anymore. I won't be judged for trying to save my friends. For trying to save the man I…'
Rokara opened her hand. Her cheeks were streaked with tears, her eyes blurring as she stared at the carving. She had held the emblem so tightly that it had left an imprint in her skin. She pulled his fingers from her wrist, gently laying the griffon in his palm before she folded his fingers around it.
She turned to pick up her pack from beside the door, but his hand grasped her wrist again. When she faced him, she was ready to throw a punch, but he anticipated the attack. He pinned her arms above her head. She gasped as he pressed closer, her back against the cold stone wall.
'Just when I think that I have you figured out, you surprise me again. There are parts of me, Roka, parts deep inside my soul that you have seared with your touch. I… I nearly lost you today. I can't… I should have known it would not be so easy, should have considered more variables. I forced you into the position that you were in, and you're right. I would do anything to save my friends.
'It doesn't matter anymore,' she said. She fought his grip, refusing to meet his gaze.
'It does,' he whispered, 'you keep putting words in my mouth when I haven't the ability to form my own. I'm not angry at you for using blood magic. I accept that you did what you needed to do, and I would see you do it again if it kept you safe.'
'You once told me to listen. Please, listen to me now,' he said. He released her wrists, his hands cupping her cheeks as he bent his forehead to hers. 'I am not angry with you, Roka. I could never be angry with you. I am angry at myself. I nearly lost you today, and you would never have known–' His breath shuddered from him. When he opened his eyes, she could see the tears that he had tried to hold back. 'Maker's breath, Roka. Being near you makes me crazy, but I can't imagine being without you. Not… ever. I should have told you when we made love in the tent because when I held you then, I knew, but I didn't have the guts to tell you how hard I've fallen. I love you, Roka, so much that I can feel it dance like a fire in my soul,' he said, re-tying the cord around her neck, the griffon resting by her heart, 'please forgive me for allowing you to believe that I would think any less of you for using blood magic. I would cut my heart from my chest before I ever allowed my mind to utter a word against you.'
Relief flooded through her as his words echoed in her mind. She struggled to find her voice.
'Alistair…' she whispered. He pressed his lips to her forehead and she realised that, after everything he had said, he meant to leave her.
Alistair turned from her. She had every right to hate him: he knew all she had experienced, all the prejudice she had faced in her life, even in silence. It would only have taken one word in the Thaig to reassure her, but he had let his anger, anger directed at himself, overwhelm him.
His chest ached as he reached for the door knob, the pain rippling through his body. At that moment, he realised that he was feeling his heart break.
Slender fingers wrapped tight around his wrist. When he tried to pull from her grasp, her nails dug into his skin, pinching. He did not want to meet her gaze. When she reached for him, he nearly jerked backwards, but she wiped his tears from his cheeks. He leant into her touch, savouring this final moment with her, even though he could not bear to say goodbye. His towering frame shuddered, overwhelmed by her touch. This petite elf had been through so much, and he could not blame her for hating him.
'I love you, too.'
He held her hand against his skin and took a shaky breath, sure that his heart would explode at her words. He turned his head to place a kiss on her palm. 'Roka.'
She was still breathless from her anger and the sheer relief that had replaced it. Her heart hammered in her chest when he met her gaze, his eyes the colour of onyx in the darkened room, the depth of his emotion drawing her in.
'I need you,' she whispered.
'Then I am yours, my darling,' he said and she drew him closer, wrapping her arms around his neck, 'always.'
He pushed her back against the wall, the impact making her gasp. She could see nothing beyond his towering frame as she wound her fingers into his soft hair, holding so tightly that he seemed to anchor her to the earth. She could feel every hard line of his body as he enveloped her in his embrace, his hands trailing to grasp her hips, drawing her impossibly closer. When he claimed her lips, she felt her body ignite under his touch. His kiss had been searing before, but now it burned her to her very soul, branding her with his love.
He stripped her robes, tossing them to the floor at his feet before he gripped her thighs, lifting her lithe body easily. Her legs wrapped around his waist, her arms winding tighter around his neck as he carried her to the desk. He swept his arm across the surface blindly, the contents clattering to the stone floor. In the back of his mind, he heard something shatter, but he did not care to look.
He sat her on the desk and stripped his shirt, the fabric ripping in his haste. He shook it from his arms, his hands gripping her thighs to pull her closer, his hips cradled by the apex of her legs. He stripped her smallclothes from her chest, baring her to his touch, her breath hitching against his lips.
He broke the kiss, but only to lay her back on the desk. He was hit anew by her beauty, her slender body trembling beneath his touch as he trailed his calloused palms over her hips, her stomach. He cupped her breasts and her eyes fluttered closed as he circled her pert nipples with his thumbs, a moan tumbling from her lips. She arched her back, her hands covering his, encouraging him. He was thrilled by her guidance, his fingers following her slow, gentle movements.
He bent his head to one of her nipples, taking the sensitive tip between his lips. He circled the peak, sucking and kissing it, the soft flesh stiffening against his tongue, the scrape of his teeth earning a breathless gasp as he trailed a hand down to her thigh. He found the ties at her hips, deft fingers quickly loosing the soft cords until the garment slipped from her body. He trailed his fingers to the soft curls, massaging the sensitive lips that framed her sex before he slid a finger along the length of her slit, finding her already slick with desire. He coated his finger in her arousal, her hips almost bucking as he circled her clit. He started slow, his pace quickening with each moan until she rolled her hips at his touch, seeking, and he slid his finger into her core. He thrust gently as his thumb found her clit, matching the rhthym of his strokes.
With his head laid on her chest, he could feel her heartbeat thundering against her ribs, could hear her rapid breathing. Her body clenched around him, her orgasm nearing until she shuddered against his hand. He met her gaze, her golden eyes glowing with passion as he coaxed her to her climax, tipping her over the edge as he held her gaze. She released a broken cry, back arching off the desk as her orgasm burned through her loins, Alistair stroking her through the heady waves of pleasure. When he withdrew his finger she ached at the emptiness he left in his wake.
He released his hold on her only to rip at the cord on his pants until he could finally kick them off. He dragged her closer to the edge of the desk, wedging his hips between her thighs. He wrapped an arm around her waist, crushing her to his chest to claim her lips. Her body cradled him, and he thrust against her slick core, coating himself in her climax before he plunged into her waiting body.
He groaned at the heat that enveloped him, at the pleasure of her silken walls that still clutched at him with the lingering pulses of her orgasm. His grip on her thighs was almost bruising, but when he ground his hips against hers, his touch only heightened her pleasure. Her legs wound around his waist, her ankles locking at his back, and she held on tightly. Each time he drove into her, she bounced on the desk, the heavy wooden legs beneath them screeching as the desk slid on the stone floor with every powerful thrust.
He lifted her, but only made it a few feet. A hoarse moan wrenched from his chest, his legs shaking as the new angle drove him deeper into her core, the friction so intense he nearly lost his footing.
'Wall will do,' he said through clenched teeth.
Her back met the cold stone, and he shifted his hold, his arms cradling her, her knees hanging over his elbows, his fingers splayed over her hips to support her.
He could feel his control slipping, heady sensations beginning to overwhelm him. He focused on her sharp breaths, on the sharp drag of her fingernails as they clutched at his arms, on the way she moaned his name like a prayer. He could feel her sweet little cunt pulsing around his cock, tightening as she neared her orgasm and he tilted his hips, finding the angle which would take him deeper. She whimpered as he slowed his pace, the slow curl of pleasure deep in her loins easing as he shifted, but once he was repositioned he rolled his hips to stimulate her sensitive clit as he thrust, and she felt heat pool in her core, her nerves clenching in anticipation.
He arched over her and she cradled his head in her hands, drawing his eyes to hers. 'Together,' she whispered, the word ending on a gasp.
With a final roll, her orgasm flooded through her, her toes curling as she screamed his name in abandon. Her core tightened around his heavy shaft, clamping down, again and again, urging him to release. His muscles stiffened, his back rigid as he lost his final thread of control, his roar of pleasure filling her ears as he joined her in her climax, vision blurring at the intensity of the pleasure that seared through his veins
His chest heaved, his body shaking. He shifted his hold on her and stumbled back to the bed. When his knees hit, he dropped down, sitting on the edge, still cradling her against his body. Her thighs squeezed around him, nearly crushing his hips, but he revelled in her tight embrace. He cupped her neck, claiming her lips, savouring the tenderness in her touch as her nimble fingers traced soft patterns over his back, making his skin tingle.
He lifted her, laying her back on the mattress. He smiled at the questioning look in her eyes, then hooked an arm under her knees and back, lifting her. He carried her to the bathroom, climbing into the natural spring that emerged from the wall. He nestled her between his legs, her back against his chest, and he wrapped her arms around her waist, settling back in the steaming water. Her fiery hair tickled his chest as she sank into his embrace with a sigh, the water easing some of the battle aches she had not had time to notice.
He swept her hair over her ear. Dried blood was crusted along the bottom edge, a chunk taken from below the tip. The silverite cuff that had once adorned her ear was gone, torn off with the chunk of cartilage.
'Roka, you're hurt.'
He reached to the table beside the spring, grabbing the nearest cloth. He dipped it in the hot water, gently wiping the blood from the wound. She flinched at his touch, and he pulled back.
'It's ok,' she said, 'just tender.'
He knew how sensitive her ears were. He steadied his hand, gently wiping away the rest of the blood, turning her head to look at the wound.
'It was an arrow, from the genlocks,' she said before he could ask.
'Any further over and it might have taken off the tip.'
'I would have been half flat-ear.'
Although she laughed, he nuzzled the other tip. 'I love your ears,' he whispered, 'they're part of you, and you are beautiful.'
She leant her head back against his chest, a smile spreading across her lips, and he tightened his hold on her, placing soft kisses on her neck. The weight of the battle, of their love-making, settled on his shoulders, and a heavy exhaustion seeped into his limbs. When she barely stifled a yawn, he forced himself to rise from the spring. He dried himself quickly, then turned to offer his hand. He helped her step over the high stone side and bundled her in a towel.
'We'll ask Wynne to heal it,' he said as he wrapped her ear with a soft cloth.
She trailed her fingers over a raised scar on his bicep. 'No. It will heal on its own, given time. It will be a reminder of what we did, and who we helped.'
He cupped her cheek, smiling down at her. 'You are full of surprises, my darling.'
She took his hand, drawing him back to the bedroom. They climbed beneath the lush covers, and he tucked her against his chest. They talked in whispers until Rokara snuggled tighter against him, her hand covering his heart. Her steady breaths lulled him, and he soon drifted off beside her.
They woke to a knock, the hard staccato rhythm easily rousing them. Rokara sat up slowly, holding the covers to her chest. Alistair rolled onto his back with a groan, cracking an eye open before he lifted his head, staring grumpily at the door.
'Do you think, if we ignore them, that they'll go away?'
'I know it is in there. I will open the door if it does not respond.'
'That's a no.'
'Come in, Shale,' Rokara called, hiding a smile as she glanced at Alistair's touselled hair.
The door swung wide, and the golem angled to get through the frame. Wynne followed closely behind, averting her eyes from the bed as she said, 'Oh, I thought you would be dressed.'
'It would seem, wise one, that they reconciled by rubbing together again.'
'Makers breath,' Alistair muttered, dropping his head back with a grimace, 'both of you, please leave.'
'Is it embarrassed about its fleshy needs?'
'No, I just don't want to discuss it with a golem and the lady who is old enough to be my mother.'
'Technically, grandmother,' Wynne said, smirking.
'Making it worse,' he said, pulling the covers over his head, 'so much worse.'
'Could this wait?' Rokara asked, glancing sideways at Alistair, though she had to stifle another smile as she noted how flushed his skin was.
'I thought it would like to know that the King visited.'
'And I wanted to make sure that you hadn't killed each other,' Wynne said, 'what with all the screaming last night.'
'Sweet Maker, kill me now.'
'Oh Alistair, don't be so dramatic,' Wynne snapped playfully.
'Easy for you to say.'
'All right, everyone, stop, just-' She sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose once the room fell silent. What is so urgent that can't wait for us to at least get dressed?'
'The King has received a report from the surface,' Shale said, 'a high dragon has been sighted circling near Redcliffe. Intelligence suggests it has landed near a village in the Hinterlands. It suggested we might want to pursue it.'
'A… dragon?' Rokara asked. She had heard that some still roamed the wilds, but it had been a long time since they had threatened a human population.
'We'll leave you to decide,' Wynne said, directing Shale out of the room, but not before she winked at Rokara, making the younger mage blush.
The door closed softly behind them.
Rokara propped herself up on her elbow, pulling the sheet down to Alistair's chest, laughing to find his eyes scrunched tightly closed. She tapped his nose with her finger and he peeked at her with one eye. 'They're gone?'
She laughed again. 'Yes.'
'Thank the Maker. For an old mage and a golem, they're a lot of trouble.'
'In a lot of ways, those trouble makers brought us together,' she said, tracing patterns on his chest, 'they saw what was developing between us when we were not ready to see it ourselves.'
'For that, I am grateful,' he said, brushing the back of his fingers over her cheek, 'you know, when they're not barging in on us when we were in bed. Imagine if we had been mid love-making…'
'The scandal,' Rokara said, laying herself across his chest.
He laughed, revelling in her smile. He wrapped his arms around her, making her gasp as he rolled her beneath him.
'I know we fought a broodmother yesterday,' she said, looping her arms around his neck, 'but… I've never fought a dragon.'
'Mmm?' he hummed as he dropped his head to her ear, nipping at her skin.
'Do you think we could handle it?'
He rose above her, raising a questioning brow. 'You want to fight a dragon?'
She bit her bottom lip, and he nearly melted at the devilish look she gave him. 'Maybe,' she said, 'I just know that there is so much of Ferelden that I have never explored, either because I was locked in the Tower, or too scared of Templars to venture beyond the safety of the mountains… until now. I'm safe with you, and… and I want to spend the rest of my life, however long that is, exploring with you.'
Alistair's gaze was intent, searching. Whatever he found in her face made him grin. 'Two mages, a warrior, and a golem walk into the Hinterlands…' he said, dropping to brush his nose against hers before he stole a kiss. He tucked her fiery hair behind her ear, knowing that he would follow her across the whole of Thedas if she asked. 'What could go wrong?'