A Tortured Rhythm
It was a very subtle thing, that habit of hers. It took Olivier weeks to notice it, but when she finally did it was impossible to ignore the way Grisia always seemed to be either be singing or tapping some part of her body to a rhythm or a song. She did it as she wandered the battlements, looking out at the mountains surrounding Skyhold, tapping her fingers on the parapet to what vaguely sounded like the refrain of one of Bard Halewell's songs. She did it as she went over reports and drew up training schedules for the new recruits, humming a Chantry hymn almost absentmindedly. A lull in the conversation and she would be tapping her heels to the beat of a song the Chargers had once energetically bellowed during one of their drinking parties. Sometimes she sang, her quiet voice surprisingly clear and crisp; Olivier once stumbled upon the elf softly singing the old Orlesian song She of the Highwaymen Repents in the Undercroft. Maker knows what she was doing in there, although Dagna had confided in Olivier with barely contained glee that the Hero of Ferelden often came down to the Undercroft to chat with the dwarf while working on a seemingly personal project.
Now as they played Wicked Grace in the tavern, Grisia was doing it again. She stared at the cards in one hand, the other's fingers steadily drumming a marching beat on the table. Her face bore completely no emotion save for the slight furrowing of her brows. Initially there were only five people playing this time around; Josephine was busy going over trade deals and plotting the political assassinations of the Inquisition's enemies, while Dorian and the Iron Bull had gone off somewhere for some private fun. Blackwall had declined, saying that he had errands to run, and no one had the heart to disturb Cassandra from re-reading Swords and Shields for the fifth time in a row. Cullen had absolutely refused to play and slammed the door in Varric's face before the dwarf even had the chance to say 'card game'. Then of course, halfway through the game Sera found the Iron Bull's secret cache of Qunari ale ("I'm gonna drink it, put some chest on my boobs!") and decided to drink herself senseless. She passed out under the table, leaving them with only four players.
It was a slow night, all in all.
"Are you in, Two Hands?" Varric shot the former Warden a grin.
Grisia's fingers stopped mid-drum. She mulled over the pile of coin on the table before reaching into her pocket. "Raise you another silver," she answered, tossing the coin onto the table.
"I fold," announced the Inquisitor. She put her cards face-down on the table and held her hands up in surrender. "I knew it was crazy to play with you two."
Cole's expression was an amusing mixture of worry and panic as he looked at his cards. "Neither the angel nor the king want their halos. The snake is dead under the armoured horse; I don't think I can win." He looked absolutely horrified.
"That's another fold. Looks like it's just you and me now, Sharpshot. You going for the call, or are you playing it safe and drawing another card?" Grisia's smile was almost infuriatingly smug.
Varric shook his head. "You're totally bluffing. There's no way you can win. I call." He laid his cards face-up on the table and waited.
Grisia made a tsk-ing sound and threw down her cards triumphantly. "Four songs. Should've been more careful, Varric. You know it's impossible to catch me bluffing." She gleefully gathered the coins into a purse as Varric swore and downed his tankard.
"That's it, I'm out. Goodnight, Inquisitor. Kid." He nodded at Olivier and Cole. "Cheater." This he almost spat at Grisia, who merely gave him a lazy wave as he strode out the tavern door.
"Cheater?" Olivier looked at her suspiciously. Cole had largely ignored the game and was immersing himself in the cards, shuffling through them and staring at the pictures.
The elf pushed her chair back and stood up. "Oh, don't mind him," she said cheerfully as she pulled on her coat. "He's just being a sore loser. Although I may or may not have sneaked a few cards from the discarded pile..." She laughed out loud at the outraged look on the other woman's face.
"So you did cheat!"
"You know, you're actually supposed to cheat in Wicked Grace. Makes the game more interesting for everyone."
"Except for those who don't cheat." Olivier countered.
"I don't know, Lady Montilyet seems to be having fun even when she's playing with cheaters like me. She still wins anyhow. Shall I wake Sera?"
"That's alright, just leave her. She'll wake on her own."
"Right. I'll see you in the morning, Your Grace." Grisia saluted her in farewell and left the tavern, humming yet another song.
Olivier sat back in her chair and watched the former Warden's retreating back until it disappeared into the inky darkness of the night. It had been two months since she first joined the Inquisition and already Grisia had advanced their cause by leaps and bounds. Her contacts in the underworld had been incredibly useful, supplying them with materials the Inquisition would have been hard-pressed to obtain, while her past experience in investigating various people in high places provided Josephine with ample information that would give the diplomat a much needed edge during negotiations. Although occasionally some malcontented souls would give her whispered grief -- the strange knife-ear must have an ulterior motive, nothing but a wretched snake -- she shrugged off all insults with a charming smile and generally got along well with everyone. Grisia Tabris had proven herself to be a powerful and staunchly loyal ally to the Inquisition, and yet there was something about her that bothered Olivier to no end. It was something in her demeanour, the way she carried herself; friendly yet aloof, affable but reticent, so very charming and still so very withdrawn. She was contradiction in the flesh, one paradox after another bundled into a single soul. She mystified the Inquisitor, and the fact that she did irritated Olivier to no end.
The first time she met Grisia Tabris, both Leliana and Cullen had neglected to inform her that the copper-headed elf was in fact the legendary Hero of Ferelden. Cullen merely assured her that Grisia was someone who could be trusted, while Leliana couldn't even find her voice, so ecstatic she was to see an old and treasured friend again. It was only during a war council meeting after the siege of Adamant Fortress when she mentioned contacting the Hero of Ferelden -- and Cullen and Leliana slowly looked at each other before looking at Grisia -- that Olivier finally discovered that the Hero had been in Skyhold all along.
Said Hero in question later claimed: "I thought they already told you! I never expected them to actually forget to tell you about it!" It took her a while to stop laughing.
For someone so legendary her existence bothered on mythical, Grisia was quite an unexpected character. The way the story was told, most people would have expected an honourable and proud warrior to be the one who had stopped the Fifth Blight. No one could have expected the Hero of Ferelden to be an elven assassin-slash-grenadier, of all the possible things, and it was a fact that Grisia herself found endlessly amusing. "When I was the Warden-Commander in Amaranthine," she told Olivier over dinner, "I once met a barkeep who refused to sell things to me because I was both a woman and an elf."
"What did you do to him? Stab him in the eye with his own pen? I hope you stabbed his eye out with a pen," said Dorian, who was eating with them at the time.
"Nothing. I simply left the place, although my subordinates were all but threatening to burn his shop down for being so rude. Several months later, the darkspawn attacked Amaranthine and I led a company of Wardens there to repel the assault." She took a sip from her drink and a wicked smile crossed her face. "The look on his face when he realised the elf he refused service to was actually a Commander of the Grey was priceless."
The fact that a prominent Grey Warden such as herself had actually abandoned the order was all the more surprising; the only explanation that she would offer was that the Wardens at Weisshaupt knew about Corypheus's existence but would do nothing about it, causing her to leave the order in disgust, but that was all she would say about the matter.
"It's not something you'd want to know more about, Your Grace. It'll just complicate matters further, and we already have enough to deal with." Grisia had said that in response to Olivier's questioning, her fingers absentmindedly twirling a lock of hair, twisting and twining in a steady rhythm, and the Inquisitor had left it at that. Didn't mean she wasn't bothered by it, but she had the feeling Grisia would not take it kindly if she had pushed any further for answers. Her voice had been matter of fact and her smile was genuine, but within her eyes burned a forbidding warning; ask any more, and she would snap in a bloodied frenzy. She was terrifying that way; there was a limit to her charming friendliness, and Olivier had instinctively felt that crossing that line would be a dangerous and reckless thing to do. There was a monster inside her, a destructive force of nature. Olivier wondered if she was truly a good thing for the Inquisition; the Hero of Ferelden, that charismatic, reclusive, and deadly ex-Warden named Grisia Tabris.
Cabot's coughing interrupted her from her reverie, and Olivier was startled to realise how late it was. "Sorry, Cabot!" she called to the dwarven bartender, and hauled Cole to his feet and towards the door. The dwarf grunted in response and started to clear the table of empty plates and tankards, wholeheartedly ignoring the slumbering elf sprawled under it.
It was unusually cold outside the tavern and Olivier shivered, drawing her cloak tighter around her. The great hall would be warm, with its crackling fire; she thought longingly of the roaring fire in her own quarters, and she began to walk towards the castle. "Come on, Cole. The sooner we get inside, the warmer we'll be. Shall we stop by the kitchen and get something warm to drink?" she suggested, but after a few paces and no response from the boy, Olivier stopped and turned to look at him. He stood in front of the tavern, unmoving, the cards in his hands forgotten. His eyes were fixed upon a figure on the tower by Skyhold's main gate; a figure that Olivier gradually recognised to be Grisia. The elf appeared to be sitting on the parapet and staring up at the night sky, and even at this distance Olivier could see her body moving slightly to some silent music that only she could hear.
It was unnerving.
Just as she was about to voice her thoughts out loud, Cole suddenly cut her short and said, "She sings songs to drown out the lullabies in her sleep, but the music stays even when she's awake."
His voice was soft as he added, "It tears her apart and she sings so it doesn't show."
Olivier stared at him, stunned by the sudden cryptic revelation. It wasn't anything new; granted, Cole had often dropped little subtle nuggets of information about their friends and everyone else around them, but this was the first time he'd said anything about the Hero of Ferelden. "What do you mean, Cole?"
"The Calling calls to her, every waking moment and every dreaming second. It's a song she doesn't want to hear so she sings other songs so she could ignore it." He watched the small figure at the top of the tower for a while before turning his gaze towards Olivier. "We should play cards more often," he said, his face serious. "It helps her forget. She's happier when she doesn't remember."
Up on the tower, Grisia stared up at the night sky and tried her hardest to count the stars, subconsciously moving her body to a silly children's nursery rhyme she'd recalled from her childhood in the Alienage. There were precious few things that she could do to try and keep herself from falling asleep, but counting stars by far seemed to be her best option. Up in the mountains, the skies were like velvet sprinkled with tiny diamonds, making it easy to pick out the stars that shone so vividly. Sometimes she thought about how Alistair might be looking up at the same sky in Denerim, and the idea brought her a small amount of comfort.
She wondered if he was affected by Corypheus's Calling as well. She hoped fervently that he wasn't, that his distance from this whole mess would keep him safe; he was all the way on the other side of Ferelden and she prayed for him to stay away. The last thing she wanted was for him to get himself caught in some ancient darkspawn chaos when he had an entire kingdom to run. He had sworn off that life, left it for good, and she wanted it to stay that way.
That was the reason why she left him in the first place. It didn't matter that he was no longer a Grey Warden; darkspawn blood still ran through his veins, and that meant he was still susceptible to the Calling. She couldn't have that. It wasn't fair; he'd left that life behind, and so she had begged for his permission to let her search for a way to cure the Calling.
He didn't want to let her go, at first. She was still a Warden-Commander then, and their respective duties made it hard for them to see each other. It hadn't been two years since the Blight, and already she wanted to leave? He had joked that she must have been getting tired of him, and she had gotten angry enough to hit him for the first time; a resounding slap across his face, and one look at his expression was all it took for her to fall in a heap at his feet, crying her heart out.
His fingers touched her face and wiped away her tears, soft gentle kisses on her eyes and cheeks; he gathered her into his arms, whispering all the while: it's alright, I'm not angry, please don't cry. I'm here. I won't leave you. It's alright. It's going to be alright. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held him tightly, choked whimpers pleading with him, wanting him to stay safe, wanting him to live a life that was rightfully his. I'm sorry. Wanting him to become untainted. I love you. Wanting him to live.
He carried her to bed and made tender love to her that night. He kissed her in all the soft places, places that made her moan and writhe in his arms, fingers clawing at his back. Limbs tangled in one another and in silken sheets. Bare skin that felt burning to the touch, lips crashing, fumbling, hold and release. They kissed once, twice, a hundred times. She called out his name. He whispered hers. They fell asleep with fingers tracing the body that each knew so intimately, memorising every faded scar, every curve in the delicate flesh, every mark that made them who they were. Tender kisses, silently in love. They never wanted to be apart.
She left Denerim the next morning. One last kiss and she was gone, keenly aware of Alistair watching her as she disappeared into the morning crowd in the market. She kept walking until she was sure he could no longer see her, and only then did she turn around to look at the castle one last time. Only then did she allow herself to cry.
The first three years were difficult. Grisia had gotten accustomed to travelling with companions, and for the first time in years she was finally, truly on her own. It didn't help that she had resigned from her position as Warden-Commander; take away her rank and she became nothing more than a lowly elf. A flat-ear, laughed the city elves still trapped in their alienages, a deluded elf trying to find her place in the human world. Still a second-class citizen, a target for prejudice. Worthless.
She invested in a good heavy duty woolen cloak with a hood and almost 100% of the problems she'd encountered regarding her pointed ears immediately disappeared. Funny how people were more suspicious of an elf than a mysterious hooded figure whose face couldn't be clearly seen, but hey - as long as it worked for her. A lone cloaked traveller wandered throughout Thedas, visiting Warden strongholds in each nation, looking for a clue, any clue, on the Calling and how to end it. She'd returned to Denerim every once in a while -- it was a condition Alistair had made her agree to, that she would stay by his side for a time before searching again -- and over time she grew increasingly frustrated over the futility of her search and her king's utter lack of diplomatic sense.
Alistair once said to her, jokingly as always, "Well, if you're so angry about how I do things, then how about you do them instead?"
She took him up on his offer and became his personal advisor, a shadow minister never seen in court; she dealt with various diplomatic issues, sending out ambassadors to trade deals and coming up with contingency plans should the Fereldans grow disillusioned with their king. Luckily those plans never had to be put into action, but the two of them had a lot of fun coming up with all the possible ways the peasantry and nobility might try and topple Alistair's reign. There had been opposition, certainly -- an elf in the Fereldan court, working so closely with the king?What scandal! The malevolent whispers ceased to exist when she successfully negotiated a peace treaty with the Avvar in the Fallow Mire and stopped them from attacking surrounding villages. Grisia worked tirelessly alongside her king until news of the Kirkwall Chantry's explosion reached their ears, and she'd discovered that one of her former subordinates was responsible for the chaos.
Grisia had never meant to leave for so long. Initially all she'd wanted to do was find Anders, give him a good knock on the head, scold him a little, and then go back home to her king. She travelled all the way to Kirkwall but couldn't find any trace of her former subordinate; instead, she met Varric, former companion of the Champion of Kirkwall who was reportedly Anders' lover. He couldn't tell her where to find Anders or Hawke, but he told her about Anders and Justice and Vengeance and that made her understood, and while meeting Varric was the best stroke of good luck she'd had in a while, it also led to her discovering the Wardens' prison in the Vimmark Mountains, and subsequently the ancient darkspawn called Corypheus. Varric had assured her that Corypheus had been slain but Grisia knew better; the only reason she'd survived killing an Archdemon was because of Morrigan's dark ritual, and there was no way killing Corypheus would be so easy.
She went to Weisshaupt for answers that were not forthcoming. Answers that never did. They told her she was wrong, that Corypheus was slain by the Champion of Kirkwall, that Thedas had nothing to fear. They told her that she was influenced by her own fears, her own nightmares from the Fifth Blight. The time for heroes had long passed, they told her, and they shut the door in her face.
That was when she threw down the mantle of Grey Warden, and swore she would never return to the order so long as she drew breath. It was sheer negligence, that was what it was; they knew something terrible had happened, and they'd wanted no part of it. None. It infuriated her. What honour! What heroism! Bah! They were nothing more than running rats afraid that their secret had come to light.
Then again, someone had to deal with Corypheus. Someone had to find out how much of a threat an ancient darkspawn is to Thedas. There had to be someone who would try and fix this mess. There was no one.
So Grisia took it upon herself to right the Wardens' wrong, and began to look for more information on this Corypheus. Oh, Alistair had not been happy, but he'd relented when he saw the rage in her eyes, the way her fist left a bloody crack on the wall. She spent years doing all she can to obtain information of ancient darkspawn prisons; everything from breaking into Circle libraries and Warden keeps to blackmailing prominent figures in society. She paid close attention to rumours; whispers of a new breed of templars, of glowing crimson armour and crazed murderous rage. She avoided areas where the fighting between mages and templars were at their worst, although she sometimes interceded in the conflict when she saw the possibility of a peaceful solution. And in the back of her mind a strange music began to sing; an ancient whisper calling her to the deep...
The Calling had begun. At first she'd dismissed it as nothing more than the fancies of a tired mind (too long researching the history of the Blight, perhaps?), but when she awoke one day screaming and thrashing from the nightmare, the Calling still resounding in her ears, she knew it was the real thing. It preyed on her worst memories, her worst fears; the Calling ridiculed her on all the things she had ever regretted in her life, and taunted her on all the choices she would later regret. It was a demonic whispering, a corrupted melody that sang in the back of her mind, that never truly went away.
It nearly drove her mad. The Calling was incessant, and it brought with it nightmares on a whole new level. More than once she found herself retching with her hands clasped around her own throat, driven too far by the torturous visions. More than once she found herself contemplating a long walk into the Deep Roads, if only to find an escape from the singing. More than once she thought about giving up, until one day she stumbled upon a minstrel singing in an inn in Caimen Brea. His voice was plain and altogether not very exceptional, but the steady rhythm of his lute brought ease to Grisia's tortured psyche, and she spent a long time merely listening to the minstrel ply his trade. By the end of the day, she had acquired the habit of humming whatever song that'd popped in her head, all in order to distract herself from the death's whispers of the Calling. It kept her going strong, even through the days when she felt like killing herself because there was always a song to pull her through the haze of pain. There was always a song for her to sing, and so she would go on.
It was pure luck that she had been riding through Orlais when she heard word of an Inquisition attack on the Adamant Fortress, a legendary Grey Warden stronghold. Her interest piqued by this news and the fact that she herself had been ambushed by an astonishing number of Grey Wardens, she immediately turned her steed around and made her way to the Western Approach just in time to see the Inquisition's trebuchets tearing down the walls of the fortress. One thing led to another and somehow she found herself swearing her loyalty to the Inquisition, pledging her help to end Corypheus, and now here she was: sitting on top of a tower in the Inquisition's headquarters, lost in old memories. Now that she knew Corypheus was the one responsible for the sudden Calling, she could breathe a little easier knowing there was a way to end it. She wondered if she could return to Denerim after everything was over.
"...sia! ... Grisia? GRISIA!"
The shout nearly made her slip off the parapet. She walked over to the side of the tower and peered down to see the Inquisitor looking up at her, beckoning her to come down, a steaming mug in each hand. Grisia pointed to herself quizzically.
"Yes, you!" Olivier hissed. "Could you please get down here already?"
The elf hauled herself over the edge and slid down the stone walls of the tower before jumping off to land safely on the battlements. "Enjoying a midnight stroll, are we?" she teased the Inquisitor, keeping her voice light. "I think you're at the wrong tower."
Olivier started to look exasperated, but shook her head and sighed instead. "I got you some tea," she said, handing Grisia the mug.
Grisia raised an eyebrow but accepted the mug anyway. "That's it? Just tea? No telling me to stuff it about Cullen?" She made a show of examining the tea in the mug. "You didn't put something in this, did you?"
"Just take it, Grisia."
"Alright, alright," she chuckled. They stood on the battlements in silence, Grisia humming to herself between sips of the drink.
Twisting the mug in her hands, the Inquisitor took a deep breath and asked tentatively, "Do you mind if I ask you something?"
"Not at all. Go ahead."
"Do you sing... because you hear the Calling?"
Grisia stopped humming. "Why do you ask?" she replied, trying hard to keep her voice steady and failing.
She could tell her reaction made Olivier nervous. "I've noticed that you're always singing, or humming, or tapping your finger to music all the time," the younger woman stammered, "and Cole says it's because you want to forget the Calling. Is it... is that true?"
Grisia stared at Olivier for several minutes before sighing heavily. She ran a hand through her hair and closed her eyes. "Yes," she admitted, suddenly tired. "Yes, I'm hearing lullabies in my head telling me to kill myself in the Deep Roads. I'm told it's a common occurrence amongst Grey Wardens."
"But we've killed the Nightmare demon!" Olivier protested. "Corypheus shouldn't be able to affect any Grey Wardens now!"
"Oh, Maker knows what Corypheus can or can't do at this stage. He could be turning a herd of druffalo into some bizarre darkspawn hybrid for all we know." Grisia stared sullenly into her mug. "Besides, it's probably just me being too sensitive to it. Not a single day goes by that I'm not having nightmares, after all."
"Is that a Grey Warden thing as well?"
The elf smiled without humour. "It is, but since I actually killed an Archdemon my dreams are lot worse than your average Warden's."
"Are your dreams really that bad?"
"Bad?" Grisia began to giggle, her voice growing louder and louder until she was roaring with laughter. "Bad? My dear Inquisitor," her gaze bore into the shaken woman, "have you ever killed a high dragon before?"
Olivier nodded, swallowing nervously. She remembered the battle. The Iron Bull had been knocked out thrice during the fight and they'd used up every potion they had just to kill the beast.
"Good. Now imagine a dragon at least five times that big, and imagine you're the only living thing standing in front of it. The world is burning. All this?" Grisia gestured to Skyhold. "Gone. Reduced to rubble. Imagine your companions around you. All dead. The Iron Bull? He's dead. Horns broken, body splintered, crushed under the Archdemon's claws. Sera's hanging on a tree branch by her guts and Cassandra burns like kindling. There's no sound. There's no chaos. The only thing you can hear is the Archdemon's roar and your own screaming and you can't tell which one is real."
Her throat grew hoarse and her voice began to crack. "You ask if it's bad. You ask if it's really something that I should be terrified of." She locked eyes with Olivier's. "What would happen if every time you close your eyes, it's Cullen's broken body that you see in front of you?" Olivier blanched, what little blood left draining from her face, and for a split second Grisia felt grim satisfaction at the other woman's reaction. "What if every time you close your eyes, you see the bodies of those closest to you, dead or dying? You could've saved them somehow; you could have saved them but you didn't and now they're all dead. The sky is raining fire, the world is in cinders, everyone you've ever cared for is dead and despite that, despite all that, you know what the worst part of it all is?
"It's hearing the Archdemon whisper in your head that all the carnage and destruction you're seeing is exactly how it's supposed to be. Do you understand how that can make you feel? How that makes me feel?"
Olivier frantically shook her head, her face still pale and terrified.
"It feels like it's tearing me apart from the inside, and that's on a good day. On bad days, I wake up covered in my own vomit and blood. I can't breathe because I'm choking on my own goddamn nightmares, AND THE FUCKING MUSIC GOES ON EVEN WHEN I'M AWAKE!" With a feral scream she spun and hurled the mug at her feet, the fine porcelain smashing into pieces. A light was lit in a room somewhere in Skyhold, its occupant undoubtedly startled awake by the noise.
Silence fell as she struggled to regain her composure, her breathing ragged and heavy. Her fists clenched tightly, nails digging into flesh. She had not meant to scream, to lose control, but she had tried so hard to ignore the Calling whispering in the back of her mind and the visions that plagued her in her sleep, and Olivier's questions, no matter how well-meaning, had finally pushed her over the edge. Grisia rubbed her hands over her face and swore, tasting the blood at the back of her throat.
"I'm sorry," she said, her voice haggard and quiet. "I don't know if you've noticed, but the Calling isn't exactly my favourite topic to talk about."
Olivier shook her head again. "No, don't apologise. I should've considered. I'm sorry for putting you through this." She bit her bottom lip, mentally berating herself for her tactlessness.
"Not at all. Thanks for reminding me about those dreams, by the way. To think I was doing such a good job distracting myself from them too." The Inquisitor's distressed face made her feel a little guilty, but at this point Grisia was far too exhausted and drained to care any longer. She turned and began to walk away.
"Where are you going?" asked Olivier timidly.
"The barracks," Grisia answered, her voice terse. "I'm going to check on the new sparring schedules, see if there's anything lacking. Anything to keep me from falling asleep." She stopped mid-stride and turned to look at the Inquisitor. "Do you need anything else from me?" Olivier shook her head and watched as she left the battlements.
By the time Olivier finally called out to her again, she was already halfway across the courtyard.
"If you want, would you like to join us the next time we play cards?" She couldn't see Olivier's face from this distance, but she could hear the tremble in her voice. Could hear the nervous apology in her words.
Despite the pain, Grisia couldn't help but break into a soft smile.
"I'd like that, Your Grace."