V: Keepers of Secrets
We reached the camp we were setting and gathered our gear and supplies: despite being already dark we needed to move our camp into an area that was more safe, more distant from those... “Morrilocks”. We didn’t get far when we heard someone approaching from the woods. We all readied our weapons when I heard a familiar voice calling out to us: “Who are you? Identify yourselves!”
“Grey Wardens.” I declared. I couldn’t quite place that voice until I spotted the man who had talked emerging from the shadows: there was only one man I knew with that shade of red in the hair and a Nevarran accent: “Rory? Is that you?”
Roland stopped and looked at me in disbelief: “Ewan? What are you doing here?”
“Maker’s blood, you scared us, I thought you were some kind of monstrous creature...” I walked to him and greeted him with a hug. I hadn’t seen him since Alistair’s coronation! “Well, not that I was entirely wrong.” I joked.
“Ditto, warden.” he laughed.
“You know him?” Jowan asked confused.
“I sure do.” I turned to introduce him: “This is ser Roland Gilmore of Hunterfell, Knight of Highever and veteran of the Fifth Blight.”
“Gilmore? The Teyrn consort of Gwaren?” both Cullen and Jowan looked surprised, and I admit I was too.
“Teyrn consort?” I asked him.
He grinned: “I got hitched. That’s why I never came to Amaranthine to join the Wardens.”
I punched him in the arm: “You could have at least invited me to the wedding!”
“I did!” he protested, “But you were busy saving the world or something... I think you were dealing with some sort of darkspawn civil war...”
I nodded: I never received the message, it got probably lost in the Wending Woods or maybe on Senechal Varel’s desk during the events of the Thaw.
“I had sent a message to Amaranthine yesterday, I didn’t think you would get here that soon.” he continued.
“A message? Don’t tell me, darkspawn attacks?”
“We don’t know for sure.” he admitted, “The village of Somersmith was attacked a few nights ago, completely wiped out...”
“Maker...” Cullen uttered, “an entire village?”
Rory nodded: “It was horrible, only a little elf girl survived. Our healer is taking care of her, but she had to use Blightbane to heal her injuries.”
“Blightbane?” both Jowan and I knew what that meant: Blightbane is a potion created by Irving’s predecessor, first enchanter Remille, to prevent the infection and the spreading of the Taint. It’s a difficult potion to make and completely useless if the taint has already spread through the body, this is why it’s not used often. Some say a darkspawn taught Remille how to prepare it, and it’s function is still unclear and object of study for the Grand Enchanter herself. With the exception of the College of Cumberland, the recipe is known only in Kinloch Hold, and only a few senior enchanters and even less Tranquils are able to prepare it.
Whatever attacked that village, it bore the Taint: only the darkspawn infection could prevent an injury to heal so that the Blightbane is necessary.
“That’s... disturbing.” I said eventually.
“So these are your Wardens?” he asked. I noticed he was staring at Jowan... oh shit, that’s right: he joined us before Redcliffe!
“Well, Lewyn is, the other one is Cullen, you may remember him from the Circle Tower, he was the templar that survived Uldred’s coup...”
“Yes... and I remember Lewyn too, he was in Redcliffe, wasn’t he?”
I glared at Jowan: Please deny it! He remembers you!
Jowan made an embarrassed smile and cleared his throat: “Yes, I was...”
Rory turned to me frowning: “So... why did you recruit a blood mage? He’s the one who poisoned Arl Eamon, isn’t he?”
I sighed: “Roland, it’s not like that... well, it is, but he was caught in the middle and Loghain took advantage of the situation... he’s a good man, and he’s trying to redeem himself...”
“And you’re a templar!” he shouted at Cullen, “You should arrest him, not travel with him!”
Cullen scoffed: “What would be the point? Ewan would invoke the right of conscription anyway. I trust him, and I’m second in command of the Gallows in Kirkwall, so I don’t see why all this should be your concern.”
Rory looked at us uncertain, then sighed and crossed his arms: “Why are you here, anyway? If you didn’t receive my message...”
“We were traveling in the area and we were attacked too.” I explained, glad he decided to drop the subject, “We saw the creatures: they are emissaries, shapeshifters actually.”
“Shapeshifters?” his frown deepened.
“That’s even more disturbing.” I said handing him one of the tunics I took from one of the Morrilocks in case I needed to try to scry for them. Rory examined the fabric perplexed. “Reminds you of something?”
“That’s quite unusual clothing for a darkspawn.” he admitted, “The seams are sewn precisely and tight, looks like it has been made by a human, not a mindless creature... and reminds me of... Morrigan’s robe?”
I nodded: “The darkspawn that attacked us looked like Morrigan. They were female, with black hair, unlike anything we have seen during the Blight or after it.”
“Female darkspawn, shapeshifters... do you think Morrigan...” he started, but I shook my head.
“I don’t know where Morrigan is exactly, but I’m quite sure she’s not in the deep roads breeding darkspawn abominations. It must be something else.”
Rory shifted uncomfortably on his feet and turned towards the trees: “I think we’d better get back to our camp, talking about this in the light of a fire would be less creepy.”
I chuckled: “You’re right.”
He took off and we followed him. As we were walking, Cullen asked Rory how we met and we both chuckled remembering the episode.
“Well, do you know about Howe’s attack on Highever?” he asked. Cullen nodded, so he continued: “After the battle, I was captured, but eventually I managed to escape, so I tried to reach Ostagar to look for Teyrn Fergus. I needed to tell him what happened... but when I arrived in Lothering, I heard the news of the battle, the death of King Cailan and that Fergus was missing...”
“Poor boy, he looked so lost in front of the chantry...” I quipped, “When we approached him he recognized our pendants and he asked us if we were Wardens... it was actually a good thing: we didn’t know Loghain blamed us for the battle and had accused our order of treason. Lucky us, Rory was a Warden fan-boy...”
“I wasn’t a fan-boy!” he protested.
“Yes you were. ‘Oh please, I want to join the Wardens, can I join the Wardens’?” I started making an childish impression of him, but I had to stop and dodge a cypress berry he had thrown at me.
“Anyway,” he continued, “he accepted this fan-boy in his ranks.”
“Morrigan wasn’t pleased.” I chuckled, “We already had Alistair, another ‘pious knight’ wasn’t welcome by her.”
“Yes, what did she say? ‘I swear, next time we’ll be recruiting chantry sisters!’ ”
“Well, the next one to join us was Leliana...” I recalled, “she didn’t get that wrong... Anyway, you came highly recommended.” I turned to Jowan, “Duncan, the Warden that recruited me, was in Highever during the attack. He wanted to recruit Roland or Teyrn Bryce younger daughter, Cora, but both refused to leave the castle when Howe’s men attacked. He even informed King Cailan about the attack, but the King died before he could do anything about it.”
“So Howe took Highever, and Loghain confirmed his new status and proclaimed him his second-in-command.” Rory sighed.
“He was a convenient cover-man.” I remembered, “Howe did all of Loghain’s dirty work, so even in front of the Landsmeet we had little proof of what he had done... even his daughter knew barely half of the things he was involved in...”
Jowan chuckled: “I admit I’m envious... it shows you two formed a great bond during the war.”
“Well...” I replied with a smile. “One good thing about the Blight...”
“...Is how it brings people together.” Rory completed and we cackled up. Alistair used to say that all the time someone was fighting over silly things. It was actually the first thing he told me when we met in Ostagar...
We arrived at the camp and a young muscular woman was waiting for us, sword ready. I knew her, having seen her a few times in Denerim, but I was never introduced to her. She jogged to us as soon as she spotted Rory and greeted him with a smile. “You’re back! Who are they?”
“Warden, may I introduce you my spouse.” Rory said with a loving smile still looking at her, “Cora, this is Ewan Amell, the Hero of Ferelden. Ewan, this is Cora Cousland, Teyrna of Gwaren.”
I bowed to Cora trying not to be too goofy. Cora was a nice and pretty, but not in a ‘delicate flower’ way: she was a Fereldan woman from head to toes, a pretty face to make your heart beat faster and strong arms to make it stop if needed. Her hair cut in a short bob were unusual in her class, and gave her a slightly tomboy-ish vibe, but she had round and proportionate features, full lips and huge hazel eyes with long lashes, unmistakably feminine. Her movements were graceful and firm, velvet with an iron core. In a way she reminded me of how I always imagined my aunt Leandra, my mother’s cousin who ran away with an apostate when I was barely three years old, and the only image I had of her was a small portrait my grandmother showed me when I was little. This girl, she used to say, is a true Amell who lives according to our motto: “What is ours, is ours to take”. I came to understand the saying only many years after, when I was sent to the Circle: no one will give you willingly what’s “yours” for birthright: if you want something you must earn it yourself. And that was a lesson Cora Cousland had learned the hard way: overthrown and captured by Rendon Howe, she had to fight to take back what was hers, and in the end she earned a place in king Alistair’s court and the Teyrnir that once belonged to Queen Anora’s father, the first city king Maric and Loghain McTir freed from the Orlesian usurper.
Considering it was Anora who choose her to fill her father’s role, she must have had a strong will and great talent, at least comparable to Anora’s own, and that’s saying something!
“I’m honored to meed you Teyrna, I have met your brother Fergus once, but I don’t think I had the pleasure yet...”
“There’s no need to bow, Warden.” she said. Her voice was a soft alto, very sensual... Rory was a lucky man, from what I was seeing! “I should thank you for having ended the civil war on the right side... among other things like... uhm... the Blight maybe?”
She laughed. Smart, good looking and with a good sense of humor, Rory was lucky indeed.
“The first time I’ve heard of you you were held captive by Rendon Howe, then you were missing in action and the next thing I know you’ve been appointed Teryna. If that’s how you can overturn your luck, I guess had you been in my place you would have done the same. You almost were, if I recall... Duncan recruited me too.”
Sadness flashed in her eyes: “Yes, I almost joined your order. I wanted too... but as Rory, I couldn’t leave my place, not with Howe’s men threatening my home and my family.”
I nodded and changed subject: “Let me introduce my friend: Knight-Captain Cullen of the Gallows and Master Lewin of Dragon’s Claw, they’re assisting me in an investigation over...”
“Jowan.” a woman said. I froze and turned to the encampment. An elven woman in a robe was standing there. Her petite figure was familiar but it took me a moment to recognize her: red hair, angled features, huge green eyes and a lip shape... the first adjective that came to mind was ‘funny’. That was made me recognize her. Her funny lip shape. She had changed so much, in those six years, but it was definitely her.
“His name is Jowan.” she repeated.
Eloise Surana survived the Blight, after all.
I was on alert since Lord Gilmore had gone searching for the source of the noise we had heard, and I noticed the three men coming from the woods with him. It took me a moment to identify them but even before Gilmore introduced him to Cora I had recognized Ewan. How could I not? I’ve never met any other human with that shade of spring-green eyes, and even in the dim light they seemed to glow. Well, it helped that he still wore his beard“Gregoir’s style”and his hair was a bit longer than I remembered but always messy the same way. Of course time and being a warden took its toll on him: he looked older, stressed, tired and careful, nothing like the carefree boy who hit on anything that breathes he used to be in our Circle days.
Cullen was a surprise: he looked even older than Ewan was, and they were about the same age, perhaps Cullen being a year or two younger, but he looked... scarred. Broken. Barely holding it together, a man at the end of his rope, it was as if in those six years since the last time I had seen him he had fought more and harder battles than Ewan - and Ewan ended a Blight, that’s saying something! The awkward young man that I loved to tease was gone, he was a hardened warrior with a spark of madness in his eyes and the burned of command on his shoulders. Knight-Captain of the Gallows? I couldn’t picture him in Kirkwall.
Jowan on the other hand... the little scoundrel was always the same, like not a day had passed since the last time I had seen him and he introduced me his Fat Cow and told me he wanted to escape the Circle. I couldn’t believe the rumors about him being a blood mage that spread through the tower after he fled, I didn’t want to believe them, but I still knew I had to get away from it, I couldn’t believe the man I used to love was a maleficar. During the years I forgot what I even saw in him in the first place but, oh boy! Now that he was standing in front of me I did remember: wide shoulder, pouty lips that begged to be bitten, black silky hair that stayed combed no matter what he did to mess them up, narrow hips that hid a firm butt made of ironbark and dark-gray puppy dog eyes... mmh, he was hitting all my buttons just standing there and looking at me bewildered: lust, care and healer-syndrome. The impure thoughts!
And he threw me away for a fat cow. Well, his loss!
“Eloise...” he murmured.
“You’re alive.” echoed Knight-Captain Obvious.
“Andraste’s Ashes!” Ewan choked his surprise, “You're here?”
“You know each other?” Cora asked him, “She’s the healer who saved me from Rendon Howe, and...”
Her words died when both Cullen and Jowan marched towards me fuming from rage.
“LITTLE KNIFE-EARED SNAKE! YOU SOLD ME TO IRVING, DIDN’T YOU? I THOUGHT...” Jowan shouted, but I couldn’t make the rest of his sentence as Cullen joined him.
“BLOODY APOSTATE! WE ALL THOUGHT YOU WERE DEAD! HOW COULD YOU LEAVE THE...”
I sighed and listened to their ramblings putting on my flawless diamondback face for a couple of seconds. With a wave of my staff I pushed them aside and walked towards Ewan, completely ignoring the two spitting rage demons: “Hello Ewan, are you happy to see me or do you want to yell at me as well?”
He smiled at me, tenderly and sadly. I had never seen that look on his face: “Hey, can you blame them?” he enfolded me in a hug, “We thought you were dead.”
“I just choose to live a free life.” I explained reciprocating, “The Circle didn’t need me, the king’s army was destroyed... when I found Nan and Cora running from the Howes in the Bannorn I had to help them...” I turned to Cullen with a impish smile, “...and after King’s Alistair’s decree, a mage that lives the circle to work for a Bann, Teyrn or as a healer in a village is not considered an apostate in Ferelden, Knight-Captain Cullen of the Gallows. I guess in Kirkwall it’s not the same thing.”
He just grunted and kept scowling at me.
“Sooo...” I turned to Jowan, “How’s your fat cow?”
Jowan crossed his arms and pouted like an offended baby: “Not talking to you. You sold me to Irving.”
I laughed, “Oh come on! It was a lifetime ago and in the end it turned out I did the right thing, didn’t I? I have heard all about you, wanted maleficar number one. I’m only sorry for the Fat Cow who ended up in Aeonar because of you.” I glared at him, “You broke my heart and betrayed both Lily and Ewan’s trust. By involving them in your foolishness you caused her arrest and his recruitment. If I could go back, I’d do it again: you brought this on yourself, not me.”
In the awkward silence that followed I realized Cora didn’t know about the blood-mage-detail... oh, well. She would have found out. Cullen coughed and whispered to him: “Well... I think she’s right, you know?”
“What a surprise...” the other hissed back.
We were interrupted by Byron, Gilmore’s father, who came from the forest with the two men he took to investigate the trail of the darkspawn we were following. “Roderick.” he called.
“Roderick?” Ewan asked puzzled turning to Gilmore. Ah, he probably knew him as “Roland”... his father named him after an uncle he couldn’t stand, and he always introduced himself as “Roland” or “Rory”.
He looked embarrassed: “Long story...” then he cleared his throat and introduced the two of them: “Father, this is the Hero of Ferelden. He and his companions are investigating the darkspawn attacks, just like us. Ewan, this is my father ser Byron Gilmore of Hunter Fell...”
Ewan saluted Byron and glanced at the small group that had gathered: “I’m not sure these are regular darkspawn attacks. The Thaw has ended years ago, and these darkspawn are quite...” he hesitated as he had heard something. I frowned, this couldn’t be good. “...different.” he concluded. Both Jowan and Cullen looked frightened by his strange hesitation and glancing around, but I had an idea of what he was sensing.
“What’s happening?” Gilmore asked, “Did you sense something?”
Ewan shook his head staring at the woods: “Something, but faint and... different. Not a darkspawn, perhaps something more like...”
“We crossed paths with some Dalish scouts before.” I explained, “Unusually friendly. We warned them about the darkspawn attacks, but one of them claimed to be a Grey Warden... you’re probably sensing her.”
He looked at me as I had grown a third boob. “What?”
I bit my lip and tried to reassure him: “I know, Grey Wardens can’t sense each other, unless they’re close to the Calling, but don’t worry, it’s normal for you.”
He frowned: “What could you possibly know about this?”
“Avernus?” Cora asked and I nodded. Ewan glanced between me and her, so she explained: “After we escaped the Howes, we ended up in Soldier’s Peak. Avernus explained to us that you had cleansed the place and re-recruited him into your order.”
“I also helped him in carrying on his research.” I admitted, “Lucky me I knew the Blightsbane recipe! That helped a great deal.”
“You did what?” he asked close to panic.
I frowned: that wasn’t that big of a deal! “His research about the taint it’s vital to your order. Don’t worry, he kept it ‘ethical’ as you commanded.” I grinned, “And now I know a thing or two about the Grey Wardens and the concoction you drank...”
He blinked at me bewildered... wait, he did...
“What do you mean? The concoction was just... an experiment.”
Oh Maker, he didn’t. “Do you really think he gave you just some extra blood-magic powers? Oh, not real blood magic.” I hurried in explaining the others, “Not in the deal-with-a-demon sense anyway, it’s magic that uses blood but it’s not blood-magic-blood-magic...”
Ewan frowned: “Then what was it?”
I shook my head chocking back a laughter: the mighty Amell who drank a potion he didn’t know the effects... I couldn’t believe he- no, wait, that’s definitely something he’d do.
“I think we should talk about it in private, Ewan. You know better than me the Wardens have some secrets for a reason...”
After dinner we were sitting around the campfire. Cullen was sitting beside me and I couldn’t resist resuming the old habits: “So, Knight-Captain of the Gallows, what brings you here in your homeland? Did you miss me?”
He glanced at me for a second “Hardly. I thought you were dead.”
“So I’ve heard. Come on, are you here on a mission or what?”
He sighed and stared into the fire: “I thought I was.” he stilled in silence for a second, then he resumed talking: “I’ve been transferred to Kirkwall after I... after an incident in the tower. I had panic attacks and I tried to kill a mage and three apprentices... three kids. After Uldred uprising I had nightmares: I saw blood mages everywhere and... well, maybe you heard what happened, let’s just say I was tortured for weeks by blood mages and I'll leave the rest to your imagination.”
I shivered: blood magic wasn’t pleasant business, but I didn’t say anything.
“Kirkwall was different, though. Knight-Commander Meredith entrusted me as her second-in-command and I started to get out of it, the nightmares lessened even when I discovered a mage’s plot to infiltrate the templar ranks with abominations... I had people I trusted, even mages, I started to see the world in a different way, getting stronger... then something happened. The Knight-Commander started to see blood mages everywhere, and this was sort of... contagious. I became obsessed with blood magic and...” he glanced at me, “...my past. So one night I left and started looking for Jowan. It was... compulsive. I had to find him and... well, arrest him, I suppose.”
Or kill him. That’s what he wasn’t saying, but I understood: “Obsessed about a guy you hadn’t seen in years as to desert? That’s what I call true love.” I joked weakly.
“Ha-ha, very funny.” he smiled at me, “Speaking of which... Jowan, this Avernus guy... you’re into blood mages, aren’t you?”
I laughed: “And what about you? Still want to get into me?”
He blushed so hard I thought he was going to bleed.
“Mmmh, I thought so... you know, your blush kinda turns me on...” I stroke again.
I turned and I saw Jowan glaring at me disapprovingly. I lost it and started laughing.
“You know why I can’t sense the darkspawn?” Ewan asked me sitting by me.
“Sure you do!” Jowan blurted out. “You sensed those creatures, those... how did you call them? Morrilocks?”
I frowned: Morrilocks? I’ve never heard of such a breed of darkspawn. “He can sense darkspawn.” I explained, “better yet, he can sense tainted beings, but only the ones who have either severed the tie to the Calling of the Old Gods or the ones who had mastered it.” I saw everyone but Ewan looking at me as if I just had talked in ancient Tevene backwards and I sighed: “The Blight is a complicated matter: the blood of a darkspawn and the blood of a Warden are different from anything else... Ewan’s blood is however different from both of them, he’s the best result Avernus could achieve in his research, and it works in unpredictable ways.”
He sighed and stared into the fire: “My... Warden sense was always weak. I’ve always had troubles in tapping into the darkspawn mind. Alistair said I had to develop my sensibility to the taint, and I did dream of the Archdemon during the Blight... but my sense had always been attenuate, even the newer recruits I conscripted during the Thaw were able to sense the darkspawn better than I did. All I could sense were the Archdemon, the disciples, and the Architect...”
“What’s an Architect?” I asked.
“A darkspawn...” he answered, glancing at Cullen and Jowan before uttering, “I believe one of the first darkspawn. One of the Seven Magisters.”
I was surprised but that made sense: “These are exactly the tainted beings I was talking about: masters of the Calling or darkspawn that have severed their ties from it.”
“Like the Disciples.”
I nodded though I had no idea what a Disciple was either: “The concoction altered your blood and how the taint works on you. Avernus’ goal was exploiting the effect of the taint on the wardens body... and he did that, but the most important result was... severing the Grey Wardens from the Calling.”
“What do you mean?” he asked surprised.
I chuckled “Have you ever wondered how is it possible Avernus is still alive?”
“A deal with a demon or something like that?” he offered.
“That would be insufficient. You’re forgetting the corruption. Avernus is not a ghoul, he retains a large part of his humanity. He should have turned and go to the Deep Roads a long time ago, but he didn’t. He’s not cured, but... changed. His experiments turned him into something different and you drank the result of centuries of those very experiments.”
“That’s why the Architect was so interested in my blood...” he murmured. “He was trying to achieve these same results... but for the darkspawn.”
“If he’s one of the original Magisters he’s a blood mage too.” I considered. “Do you think he’s the fabled darkspawn that taught Remille how to prepare the Blightsbane?”
Jowan grunted: “I’m surprised you drank the thing, considered this guy was a blood mage...”
“So what?” Ewan growled. All of us looked at him surprised by his reaction. “If you didn’t notice, there was a Blight going on, and I was... am sworn to do anything in my power to stop the Blight, and if there was any chance that potion could have given me more power... I just took the chance.”
“And it set you free from the Calling of the Old Gods.” I added. “It won't stop the corruption, but it will prolong your life all the same...”
He shrugged: “I’ve been a Grey Warden for less than seven years, not even halfway through my life expectation and I’m risking my life anyway. Believe me, the Calling is far from my immediate concern.”
An uncomfortable silence fell over us. I sighed and considered what my priorities were.
“We’re leaving tomorrow at dawn.” Ewan announced.
“I’ll be ready.” I replied.
Three head snapped at me so fast I thought their necks would have break.
“Are you sure?” Ewan asked slowly. “What about your patient?”
I shrugged: “She’ll live. If she didn’t die yet, there’s nothing I can do to make it worse.”
He sighed: “I suppose you think I need you more than she does.”
I grinned: “Sure you do.”
“You know anything more than you already shared?”
I held his stare: if he was afraid I was keeping information from him he was so very wrong. Actually, I believed it was the other way around: Ewan was onto something, something dangerous, and I had already let him down. I had him recruited in the Wardens by telling Irving of Jowan’s plans, I didn’t make it to Ostagar in time to help him... And I missed him. I missed Jowan. I even missed Cullen... I missed what we used to be back in the days. I missed my family.
“The last time I left you alone with him...” I nodded towards Jowan who was glaring a hole in my forehead as if aiming for a fireball, “he ended up using blood magic, you joined the Grey Wardens and Cullen was left alone in the tower to be tortured by blood mages...”
“Afraid we’d get in trouble without you?” he offered with a smirk.
“No,” I stood up and patting away the dirt from my skirt, “I’m afraid I’ll miss all the fun. Again.”
As soon as we left the Cousland’s camp, I started to think allowing Elosie to travel with us was a bad idea. Possibly the worse idea in the history of bad ideas. We weren’t even out of the camp’s grounds that she started to pick on Jowan.
“I wanted to tell you I’m sorry.” he had blurted out, “I hadn’t realized I was hurting your feelings...”
“What in Andraste’s name are you talking about?” she had asked surprised.
“Well... about what happened in the Circle... Lily and all...”
She interrupted him with a groan: “Dear Maker, Jowan, that was seven years ago! Don’t you think I may have moved on in the meantime?”
Considering she brought it out barely yesterday, I didn’t either, but whatever...
“You may have, but I haven’t.” he continued, “You are right, I brought this on myself and I’m still facing the consequences and trying to make amends of...”
“Jowan.” she interrupted him. “Seriously, there’s no need. I understand your point of view, but if you think I did what I did out of jealousy, you’re wrong. And if you think you can fish for an apology with me, I have to disappoint you once more.”
Jowan just stared at her in utter surprise, then he let out a groan of frustration and marched ahead muttering curses I couldn’t quite understand but probably involved Eloise’s ancestry.
Just. Great. This was going to be fun. Oh, well, if I managed to keep Leliana and Morrigan together without killing each other I could do this.
I glanced at Cullen, the only one who hadn’t spoke yet and asked him: “How are you?”
“As always.” was his dry answer.
I sighed: “So... she’s alive, uhn?”
“Nothing. I just thought...”
“If you thought I would be glad to see her again and have her along with us” he hissed, “you were wrong. I loved her, oh yes, I used to. Very much, more than my own life. She was important to me, more than the Maker himself, had it been her instead of Uldred leading the riots in the Tower I’d have been at her side, fighting for mage’s freedom against my own comrades. I’ve never loved any woman but her, I don’t care about her being a mage, an elf... I never did.
“But they used her to torture me, they trapped me in the Fade repeatedly, every time with a different demon posing as her, torturing me, offering me a life I would never have, telling me things I knew weren’t true but I so desperately wanted to believe... but I wanted the real thing, not a nice fantasy, albeit believable. They held me captive for... I don’t know how long, days? Weeks? A month? A year, even, for what it’s worth. Time is pointless in the Fade, you should know that, and with all the time in the world they used her against me. But this doesn’t matter, she was and always will be the love I will never live and the instrument of my greatest pain.
“Yes, I still love her. Pathetic right? My teen crush still haunts my dreams, and now she haunts my waking hours as well. So, if you thought having her along would make me feel better, the answer is no.”
He kept walking, slightly panting.
“So I was right.” I said with a smile. He glared at me puzzled, “You did need to talk.”
He chuckled and kept walking shaking his head. I caught up to him and I was about to say something else when I heard a pluck and a swish coming from a tree at our side. I recognized the tune: “Look out!” I shouted while grabbing him. An arrow fled just in front of us, piercing the undergrowth.
It looked like we had found the Dalish.
In a matter of seconds all of us had our weapons ready, but I whispered them to stay put, then I shouted at the trees: “We mean no harm, Elvenhan...” Maker, I hoped that was the right word, “I am a Grey Warden, and these are my companions. We are on a quest for the dark ones who are raiding these woods, and we seek for the People’s wisdom.”
A rustling in the bushes signaled someone was coming out of hiding, I just hoped they would prove themselves as friendly as Zathrian’s clan... well, maybe a little more, if that was possible.
A young girl in a Veridium armor emerged from the underbushes: “Warden!” she smiled at me.
I smiled in recognition: “Ariane!” I greeted her as a warrior, since that’s what she was and Dalish people can be touchy. Not that it would be a problem with us, but I didn’t want to put her in an awkward position with the other elves of the vanguard she was probably leading. “I was really hoping to find you! Is Finn with your clan?”
“Yes, Warden. We joined them not long ago, and the keeper will be glad to thank you in person for your help in recovering the tome.”
I smiled. Ariane was sent by her keeper Solan to retrieve an ancient book her clan had guarded since the days of Arlathan... or since the day the text was reclaimed from the Circle by an Elf who later joined the Dalish... or both, that part wasn’t quite clear when she explained it. We met at Flemeth’s hut in the Korcari Wilds, both looking for Morrigan, and we started our search together as we gathered by finding Morrigan we’d find the book and vice-versa.
“Maker’s blood!” Jowan exclaimed, “Is there someone you don’t know in this forest?”
“Well, what do you expect when half of Ferelden seems to have fled to Kirkwall?” Eloise quipped.
A tingle in the back of my head warned me a Grey Warden was nearby. I was expecting the Warden to be her since Eloise mentioned a Dalish Warden, still seeing her when I turned was a surprise.
“Wonders of wonders... It’s nice to see you, Commander.”
“Velanna! I thought you were dead!” I smiled at the exiled First and offered her a smile. I never knew how to... interact with her, since she seemed offended by anything and everything I said or did, even if all I did was trying not to offend her, and I was really surprised to see her smile back at me and offering her hand to grasp in salute. I hadn’t see her in five years, not after the siege of Vigil’s Keep when she went missing in action.
Eloise snorted and nudged at Jowan: “You were saying?”
“I’m sorry I hadn’t returned to the Keep, Commander.” Velanna said. “But I’ve heard you let Anders go, so I hope you don’t consider me a deserter...”
I laughed: “You know well Wardens don’t have real deserters. And to me it doesn’t matter where you perform your duties.”
She smiled and showed me the way as Ariane started leading us to their camp “I guess you don’t. Besides the Dalish need me, now more than ever. Strange darkspawn have roamed this forest lately.”
I nodded: “You look good. Living with the People is good for you.”
She chuckled: “That’s because this is not my clan, I guess. And after my experience with the Wardens I’m not the same woman.”
“What happened to you?” I asked. She looked at me funny for a second before realizing I didn’t mean what had changed, but what happened in the battle. Soldier had seen a section of the walls collapse on her, but when they removed the debris we didn’t find any body.
“I saved myself using the root magic.” she explained, “We... Keepers are trained to become one with nature, I can travel through roots, I think I showed you some times...”
I nodded: in the Wending Woods she used that trick repeatedly when we were looking for her. Used to drive us nuts.
“I ended up in the Wending Woods, exhausted and wounded, and I figured that it was useless to try and reach the Keep: by the time I would have get there the battle would have been either won or lost.” she continued, “That’s when I met Solan’s clan. They were traveling south, getting close to the Wilds and the Thaw was still ongoing as well as the darkspawn civil war. I thought they needed me more than you did, all things considering, so I decided to escort them.”
“Not to interrupt the story...” Eloise quipped, “but why exactly are we joining the Dalish now?”
“Well... that’s unusual, actually, but to find out more about these darkspawn... well, we’ll need an Eluvian...”
“A... mirror?” Jowan asked. I froze surprised for a second: I had forgotten Jowan was quite versed at Elvish, more than Eloise and myself, anyway...
“A magical mirror.” Ariane explained. “An ancient elven magic.”
“And it happens their keeper and Finn are the most expert about this kind of things.” I concluded.
“Finn?” Cullen frowned. “You mentioned this guy before, who...”
“Wait.” Jowan glared at me in shock, “You don’t mean Finn as in Florian, right?”
“Oh Maker!” Cullen was equally shocked, “We’re doomed!”
Eloise was not pleased: “You made us cross this forest to find Flora?”
“Hey, hey, calm down a bit...” I smiled at them awkwardly but tried to sound confident. Finn wasn’t exactly... oh, damn it, Finn was a nerd, a goof and a major pain in the ass sometimes, but he was still the only one I knew who could understand how an Eluvian works that I could track down. “I’ve worked with him recently, he’s grown up, matured, and he’s a capable mage and educated scholar. He’s...”
The last of my pathetic excuses died when we got out of a scrub of overgrown shrubs and I’ve heard Finn’s voice finishing the infamous joke of the cleric, the dwarf and the darkspawns.
“...So the dwarf said: ‘We don’t dream, we don’t worship this Maker guy and we can’t be mages, so what in the dust are they doing down here?’”
The poor Dalish hunter turned at us with a lost look and Ariane sighed.
“You were saying?” my three companions were glaring at me arms crossed.
“Andraste give me strength.” I uttered.
Finn turned following the hunter’s gaze and spotted us: “Warden! What brings you here?” he looked past me, “Oh, no way! There are also Surana, Jowan and... er...” he paused uncertain at Cullen, “Weren’t you transferred to Kirkwall, ser Cullen?”
“Yes, but don’t worry, I won’t stab you.” Cullen replied, but the look on his face said otherwise. It occurred to me that if the incident with Anders and the apprentices happened in the library, Finn had probably witnessed it.
In fact he took a step towards me and whispered: “Not that I’m not glad to see you, but what are you doing here with a blood mage, a crazy templar and... Eloise?”
“Right now, I’m trying to keep them from killing us both.” I murmured. “I need you to find a working Eluvian. Do you still have the shard we used to scry for one?”
“Sure I do.” he replied happly.
“Well, I need you to scry for a working one, not the one in the Dragonbone Wastes...”
“Of course, that’s broken.”
“...And I need to speak with the Keeper about the lore: I need to find out everything I can about them.”
“Oh, there’s no need to disturb the Keeper.” he dismissed my concern with a wave, “I know plenty about them, if you want I can...”
I felt, more than saw, the glances Jowan Cullen and Eloise were throwing at me, and none of them were friendly. When I heard Cullen’s sword come out of his sheath, I probably widened my eyes because Finn stopped with a concerned look: “...No?”
“No, thanks.” I sighed, “I prefer to speak with the Keeper if that’s possible.”
“Very well, I’ll get the shard then, and begin scrying. Figures it will be a lot easier without undead rising and trying to kill us...”
“And I’ll go ask the keeper.” Ariane interjected, “But I’m not even sure he’ll be able to help you: if you recall there wasn’t much we knew about the Eluvian before we retrieved the book Morrigan stole...”
“Wait, did you just say the book was yours?” Eloise mused, “And you weren’t able to interpret it?”
“We had no idea what an Eluvian was in the first place.” Velanna groaned, “Solan had me, Finn and his first Zeryde studying it since they returned with it. I don’t know what that witch of the wilds of yours did it, but seeing it in action helped us understanding many of the words who’s meaning was lost to time. For example, Finn thinks it's Elua-Vian: 'looking glass', but I believe it's El u viran 'our only way in'...”
“Wait, you studied that book?” Jowan asked Velanna, “Can’t you tell us what you need to know?”
“I could, but it’s not my place to decide whether to share the knowledge.” Velanna replied dryly.
“I could have let Finn tell me, but I asked Solan's first also for respect.” I explained, “No offense, but Dalish keep as a secret any information related to their culture, even those things who aren’t secret at all.”
Ariane nodded: “Let’s see if I can get your audience.”
“Ma serannas, Ariane.”
She smiled at my accent and hopped away. Velanna slithered at my side so silently I jumped when she spoke.
“I still don’t understand how you do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at her... she was worse than me, cursing shems here and there and now she’s speaking of leaving the clan to live with Finn...”
“What?” my eyes must have popped out of my head, “Ariane and Finn? No way!”
Velanna chuckled: “You have a strange influence over us Dalish people. A few days working with you and we almost forget what humans did to us all...”
“Who tells you is has to do with me and not with Finn?”
“Because it just doesn’t work the same way with Finn. Ariane may want to kiss him silent -when no one's looking- but I’d rather smack some common sense into his head.” she laughed.
“You changed.” it slipped to me. I didn’t mean to blurt it out loud, but Velanna wasn’t offended.
“I have.” she admitted, “My time with the Grey Wardens made me put all in perspective. It’s not who we’re born that define us, but the choices we make. I like to think I’m a little less selfish and more tolerant now, and I definitely take my vows as a Warden more seriously.”
That surprised me: I knew only too well she joined the order just because she wanted to find her sister, abducted and turned by the Architect, but during the Thaw I imagined it was a reason as good as any. “What vows are you talking about? Do anything to stop and prevent a Blight?”
“In peace, vigilance. It’s the same as we speak in the Joining, the shadows where we stand vigilant... Being a Warden is standing vigilant against any threat to our people, whether it comes from the darkspawn or something else. The Dalish have always been my people, and I’ll vigil over them until the day of my Calling.”
I nodded and smiled. She had found her dimension both as a warden and a Dalish, without having to deny neither, who was I to disagree?
First Zeryde was all I could expect from a Keeper and nothing I was expecting from a First. In my limited experience with Dalish, Firsts were apprentices, young ones, twenty-five years old tops. All the ones I had met or read about in Anders’ letters - Lanaya, Velanna, Merrill - fit the bill of the young and restless, the careless youngster or, on the contrary, concerned by their own inexperience. Zeryde was nothing like that: she was older than me, probably over-forty, her face - or at least the half I could see as she had the other hidden by a mass of curly black hair- carved by the time and perhaps a straining use of magic, as I recalled having seen many mages in the tower aging fast because of a strange and unusual connection with the Fade.
Wrinkles or scars I couldn’t tell, since the tent when she received me was shielding us from the sunlight and the only light source were two candles that burned too bright for being simple waxed ropes. She was sitting legs crossed casually leaning over some pillows, probably made of woven hemp and filled with pine needles by the smell of it.
“Andaran atish’an, First Zeryde...”
“Aneth’ara, Dor’Telasen. Be welcome.” she spoke with a deep and soft voice, “I understand you are the clanfriend who saved our brethren in the Brecilian forest from the plague of werewolves, the clan of Zathrian... or should I say Lanaya, now...”
“Zathrian did it, actually” I admitted sitting on the ground, “And I suppose technically it’s Lanaya’s clan now, although I believe Zathrian’s name is going to stick for some more time.”
“It is. Zathrian led the clan for a long time... and Keeper Lanaya speaks fondly of you. It is uncommon for a Dalish to have such respect for an human.”
“It is also uncommon for a city-born elf to become a Keeper...”
“True. But Ariane and Velanna aren’t city-born, and they respect you just as much as she does.”
I shrugged, “I’m just a shemlen who knows what’s like to be on the bad side of oppression. I showed respect and got it in return, I’m afraid that’s why it’s so uncommon for humans to gain the People’s trust and friendship.”
She laughed. “That’s true: your kind doesn’t value our common gift as the Elvhen do. But you don’t give yourself much credit calling yourself a len: you don’t try to muse us when you speak the tongue of Arlathan, you do it out of respect... and your past speaks for your motives, the reasons you seek for an old lore you helped recover...”
I nodded: “Yes. I need to know how an Eluvian works.”
“What for, if I may ask?”
I paused. I knew what she was really asking: if I was after Morrigan, then why didn’t I follow her through the mirror when I had the chance? Ariane must have told them about our encounter, and what she told me... what she didn’t know was the rest of it.
“There is... something going on now...” I started, “something that could be related to Asha'bellanar... My mentor Grey Warden once said these mirrors were used as communication devices...”
“Duncan told you that?”
“You knew him?” I asked surprised.
“Keeper Marethari did, and we crossed paths more than once.”
I nodded: I knew who Marethari was because both Duncan and Anders’ reports from Kirkwall mentioned her, and I also knew she was... close to Flemeth herself, judging by the story of the amulet Flemeth gave Hawke...
“Duncan told me that two of her hunters found an Eluvian and they fell ill from the darkspawn taint because of that. Ariane mentioned you crossed path with them not long ago.”
She just nodded then stared into the fire of the candle.
“Beware of Eluvians, Dor’falon...” she said eventually, “they are a mystery to anyone, even for me who have studied them for a long time now... they are described as a gateway to other worlds, as spying glasses through the Beyond, as communication devices... as weapons. Yet they’re none of these things, and perhaps all of them. No one knows how they were built, how exactly they work or where they can lead... perhaps only your friend Morrigan does, now. Are you really sure you want to risk to find one and activate it?”
“If I don’t I could never learn what’s going on, Zeryde” I explained, “what’s threatening this forest and all its inhabitants... including you.”
She turned to me and smiled: “Then I’ll tell you what you need to know.”
Exiting the tent, a rush of fresh air made my head spin. Finn trotting towards me waving a map didn’t help me.
“There you are!” he panted, “I managed to find another Eluvian, but you’re not going to like where it is.”
“Here...” he laid the map as I motioned for Cullen, Jowan and Eloise to come closer, also because I didn’t like neither the flirty looks Eloise was throwing at one of the scouts nor Cullen’s reaction to it. “On this island offshore of West Hill, due front from river Dane’s mouth...”
“Uhm, on the other side of the country, but at least it’s on this side of the Waking Sea...” I grunted.
“It’s in the north of the central island of this group, Valegathe I believe is called.”
“Valegathe?” Cullen frowned, “Damn!”
I sighed and braced for more bad news: “You know the place?”
He nodded “Jainen. Could be worse, actually: it's a Circle of Magi.”
Jowan frowned: “A Circle? There? I thought Kinloch Hold was the only Circle in Ferelden...”
“Jainen is a small Circle, led by Isolationists and dedicated to research, doesn't take apprentices.” Eloise scoffed, “Really, did you ever read Circles of Thedas: a History?”
“I did, but I've never seen the Circle of Jainen mentioned anywhere.” I objected, “Hadn't I taken a look at the Warden treaties I wouldn't even know it exists either, and there are Circles there that don't exist anymore, annulled or destroyed in the Blights.”
Eloise smirked: “Next time look at the sources.”
“The good news is that being small and isolated, and since we got a Templar and a Warden-Commander, there's not much risk of getting in trouble for apostasy.” I sighed looking at Jowan and Eloise. She looked as she was about to object, but I cut her off. “Eloise, you are an apostate now. Irving may manage the Circle on his own now, but the Circle still stands, and you haven't reported to the Tower since the Blight. Irving doesn't even know you're alive. But that’s our only option...”
“Unless you’re up for a trip to Kirkwall or Jader, that is.” Finn added sadly. “There was another possible contact south of the Hinterlands, bordering the Korcari Wilds, and one on the Frostback Mountains, but I couldn’t define a specific location, that’s the best I could do. Besides, the signal was so warped they were either damaged, corrupted or in the Deep Roads...”
Eloise rolled her eyes: “Whatever.” she grumbled, “I hope we can actually get there.”
I glanced at the group: “I have a copy of the treaties and we have Cullen. Jowan has laid low for six years, they probably wouldn't recognize him, and no one questions mages if a Warden and a Templar accompany them. We should move on, we could get a ship from Amaranthine but it's two days away...”
“Why not Denerim?” Cullen asked. I glared at him and he shifted his gaze to Jowan: “Oh. Right.”
“You’re leaving already?” Finn asked in a sad surprise.
“Yes... but I hope we can return for the wedding.”
“We-wedding? What wedding?” he blushed harder than I ever seen Cullen, and suddenly I understood why Eloise found it so funny.
“Oh, I see!” I kept teasing him, “You're afraid to ask for her hand because you're a shem, are you? Or do you believe mages should not be bonded by off-Tower morals? You're in for a bad surprise: most Dalish are pretty strict on premarital sex...” Finn's eyes widened in shock and the blush deepened to a shade of purple.
“Wait...” Cullen’s eyes widened when he realized what I was saying, “He’s dating a Dalish?”
“He’s got a girlfriend?” Jowan asked equally surprised?
“He’s heterosexual?” Eloise seemed the most shocked.
“That’s none of your business.” Finn stammered while trying to crawl inside his robe like a turtle.
“True.” I laughed patting his shoulder... then I couldn’t resist to a final gibe, “...but remember: elves are no longer immortal, don’t make her grow old waiting for you to grow a pair and propose to her.”
“Maker! You’re impossible!” he growled at me, while Ariane appeared behind him.
Oh, how I love a perfect timing!
“Zeryde tells me you’re leaving, Warden. If you need any help Velanna and I... Finn, what happened? You look... flushed. Are you feeling well?”
We all burst out laughing while Finn was stammering a lame excuse about exertion from the scrying ritual and other things. Ariane and Velanna probably didn’t catch the joke, but the latter had a smirk on her face when she approached me.
“As Ariane was saying, if you need any help in your mission...”
I shook my head: “Don’t worry about that, Velanna. The clan needs you two, it is better if you stay with them and keep your good work here rather than coming to a shem’s Circle... specially if all you know about it comes from Anders.” I chuckled.
She rose her brows surprised: “What, no burning woods, demon filled swamp or deep roads? That's almost easy compared to the standard location of your quests!” she jested. I laughed wholeheartedly.
“You forgot elven ruins and dragon's nests.” Ariane interjected, “Three of you are mages, if I’m reading the robes right, so it should be no problem.”
“Yes, and Cullen is a templar, no one will bother us.” I added patting over Cullen’s shoulder who rewarded me with an frown, “You may need all the spells, blades and Grey-Warden-sensing you can spare as long as you stay in this forest: those darkspawn are still there, and until I don’t track their origin, they’ll keep coming. They always do.”
“Commander...” Velanna started to say something, but she probably changed her mind. She just smiled and said “Thank you.”
“Dareth shiral, Velanna... and good luck.”
As we were leaving the camp walking north, I couldn’t help to think how strangely things work sometimes: I left the keep to find an old friend and I’ve found five. It looked like the casual encounter with a friend brought another one back into my life along with them: I found Jowan and I met Cullen, I found Rory and I met Eloise, I found Ariane and Finn and there was Velanna...
I just couldn’t help wondering: With who will I find Morrigan?