Quite the Damn Deal
"Ffion, please, don't try to get up just yet. You'll only make things worse," Wynne's tone was exasperated as she pushed gently on the Warden's shoulder, "Honestly you could be a close second to my worst patient."
Ffion couldn't help but smile, placating the enchanter by leaning docilely against her pillows with a wince.
"I hate... being second best," She replied, hating the catch in her voice even more. The last thing she wanted was to prove Wynne's point, "Besides Harrowmont is... waiting for me."
"And he can wait a bit longer," The enchanter said calmly, recognizing the defeat when she heard it. She poured another potion into a heavy pottery mug and handed it to Ffion, "He's been waiting all these weeks. What is an hour or two more?"
Ffion cradled the mug between her palms, mulling over those words. The more she spoke and interacted with Wynne, the more the enchanter reminded her of her mother and she knew that that was why she felt an instinctive desire to tease and needle her. Wynne would never take Eleanor's place, no one could, but that feeling of being a beloved, spoiled daughter, of being taken care of, was intoxicating and she was going to chase it while she could. Even if it included getting scolded. Her grey eyes met Wynne's bright blue and she smiled rather cheekily.
"An hour or two, huh?" She repeated, "A lot can happen in an hour. Hell, Zevran could probably off two or three troops in an hour."
Wynne seemed to realize that she was being baited and so she didn't encourage Ffion by responding. She merely cast her own indulgent smile and sat primly on the chair beside the bed. She smoothed the skirt of the robe that she wore whenever they weren't traveling, and tucked a short strand of her white hair back behind her ear where it belonged. Her face was still a little drawn from the effort it took to purge the poison from Ffion's wound, but her blue eyes were as sharp as always.
"Drink that, Ffion, and get some rest," She ordered firmly.
That set the Warden's mind. She eyed the mug and then shook her head, setting it on the table beside her with a decided thud. Sitting up straight, she shifted on the small bed and swung her legs over the side. Wynne was beside her in an instant.
"No, Wynne, I know you mean... well. But I'm not going to... sleep the day away and destroy... everything we've set up with Harrowmont," Ffion was just as stubborn as the enchanter and she spoke with that same careful neutrality, but her voice was getting stronger. If Wynne wanted to play this game, she'd go along with it. She couldn't help but wince, though, as she reached for the heavy shirt at the end of the bed, "I'm not going to fall for that trick."
Wynne heaved a long-suffering sigh and took up the shirt herself, handing it to the stubborn Warden.
"It's not a trick, it's meant to keep you alive," She helped Ffion ease her arms into the sleeves and added, "And don't worry about being second best. You're well on your way to being the worst."
Ffion grinned and carefully tugged her heavy ponytail free of the shirt. She could feel the tenderness of the gash along her back, but thankfully it was no longer that white-hot heat. Wynne's bet was that the assassin had used a stiletto and it was beyond any of their guesses as to why he had slashed instead of stabbed her. If it had been a stab and that quick moving poison had been released in Ffion's veins, she would have been long gone before they even reached the Commons. By all accounts and, in Leliana's opinion, by the mercy of the Maker, Ffion was just a damn lucky girl. The wound was bound with both magic and physical bandages and she felt up to the next meeting with Harrowmont in spite of Wynne's concerns. A knock on the door interrupted any further conversation and Ffion immediately dragged the blanket over her bare legs.
"Come in," She called, once she was sure she was covered.
Wynne was the only one that was going to see her in her smallclothes, if she could help it. And that was just because the enchanter happened to be a healer. Alistair opened the door, his smile broad and honey colored eyes thrilled.
"That is much better," Leliana's lilting voice said as she bounded in with the ex-Templar, "You had us quite worried, dear."
"I'm fine," Ffion replied with a rather shy smile at Alistair. He had carried her all the way back to Tapsters and she couldn't help but recall the strength in his arms and the tender way he had held her... Her cheeks were growing hot and she added suddenly, "And we need to get back to Harrowmont."
"Now?" Alistair questioned, startled, "But-"
"It's no use," Wynne interrupted as she crossed the room and gathered up Ffion's extra clothing, "We've already had this argument."
"Shocking," Morrigan's voice held all its usual cool superiority and she leaned against the doorframe with her arms crossed.
"Remember what I said about... predictability, Morrigan?" Ffion asked with a smile as Wynne shooed them from the room.
She tried to send Tilly out as well, afraid that the hound would knock her lady over and undo all her hard work, but the Mabari simply ducked around the opposite of the bed and refused to be moved. The enchanter sighed again, turning to Ffion, and helping her finish dressing.
"That beast is as stubborn as you," She muttered under her breath.
The Warden smiled, remembering her mother, and wishing that it didn't hurt so much. She pushed one hand down to Tilly's head to prevent the Mabari's jumping and to keep her balance. The wound stung, but it wasn't any worse than some of the bumps and bruises she had had in the past, and nothing at all like that first day she remembered after Ostagar.
"Wynne, you're one in a million," She replied, tying to disguise the note of heartache under one of playful teasing.
The enchanter gave her a quick searching look that told Ffion she hadn't hidden the pain as well as she thought, but Wynne didn't push it. Instead she nodded and said briskly,
"Well, we'll both have to remember that next time when I have Sten or Alistair put you under completely so you won't have any choice but to sleep."
Ffion chuckled and by the time she had struggled into her boots and they went down the steps, Zevran and Sten had returned, with the dead Dwarf's friend in tow. He instantly gave Ffion a bow and then stepped forward to shake her hand. He looked a little better since they last saw him. At least he was standing under his own power now. His black eyes flicked around Tapsters' bar-room with a gleam of greed and something like nostalgia, and then he met Ffion's gaze.
"I didn't think... I mean, no one's ever... Stone take it! I'm butcherin' this, ain't I?" That wasn't meant to be answered and he tried again, "What I'm tryin' to say, Warden, is thanks. Faren an' me... Well, let's just say we never had no one really care what happened to us."
Ffion smiled gently, catching herself before she thanked Leliana as the Orlesian kept the others from interrupting. Morrigan's sigh was loud and very rude, Sten shifted his weight impatiently, and Zevran's eyes danced rather wickedly. Leliana's quick wave prevented any of them of expounding.
"Not a very happy life, I take it?" Ffion replied in a soft tone, "And you're welcome. It wasn't right, leaving him like that. No one deserves that fate and it doesn't matter what choices he might have made."
"Yeah, well, that's what we're used to in Dust Town," The Dwarf answered matter-of-factly, "Anyway, Warden, you'll have friends in the casteless if I have any say in it. Name's Leske, by the way. An' if anything comes up and yeh need an extra set of hands, you let me know," Leske eyed her appreciatively and added, "You're not a bad sort, yeh know, Warden. For a cloudhead."
"And you're okay, too, for a casteless," Her grin was broad as Leske chuckled, and they shook hands again, "And I'll keep your promise in mind, Leske, thanks."
They left Tapsters and headed to the Diamond Quarter. Ffion's presence slowed them a little but with Alistair on one side, Tilly on the other, and Zevran following as close as a shadow, there was very little risk that she would have trouble.
"Is all of it really so hopeless?" She asked randomly and her voice was soft, like she was speaking to herself rather than them.
Alistair frowned down at her, not understanding.
"Hopeless?" He repeated, "You mean the Blight?"
She glanced at him, startled. She hadn't thought she spoke aloud. Her cheeks colored a little as she realized they were all staring at her and, what was worse, they had stopped walking. The color deepened and she shook her head, starting forward once more.
"Never mind," She said, "I was thinking of... Never mind, it doesn't matter."
She passed by Morrigan who had been leading the way and didn't see that speculative gleam in the witch's gold eyes. Not that that mattered either. Morrigan had guessed enough about Ffion's previous life that it would be pure redundancy to confirm it all. And besides, the Warden was now disappearing through the double doors leading to the Diamond Quarter.
When Forender met them in the foyer of the estate, he was shaking his head before he even spoke.
"I'm sorry, Warden," He said, his voice stuffy and not in the least bit apologetic, "Lord Harrowmont can't see all of you this time. He says just the Wardens today."
Ffion sighed, on the verge of putting her hands on her hips and demanding an answer. For once, though, Alistair was faster.
"We did what he wanted: Jarvia's dead and the Carta's scrambling," He replied coldly, "What's the new paranoia?"
Forender made a visible attempt to keep his temper. It was clear he'd be very happy to get the Wardens out of his hair when the time came.
"Poisoned letters," His answer was short, "Presumably from Bhelen's supporters. Two of our secretaries are dead."
Ffion's brows drew together in a frown and her irritation disappeared as the concern took over. She exchanged glances with Alistair before replying,
"None and dozens at the same time," Forender was maybe a little softer this time, but it didn't last long, "So now you'll understand why we say just the Wardens today."
Ffion nodded, knocking her hair from her eyes and wishing she had twisted it up completely.
"All right, that's fair enough," She shot a glance at the others, "I guess just wait here. We shouldn't be too long."
"So you are given the opportunity to make another foolish promise?" As per usual, Morrigan wasn't going to go quietly.
"Morrigan, we're just going to get his promise," Ffion answered, "All we need is his word that we'll have the Dwarves' aid. Have a little faith."
The witch eyed her a moment longer and then spread her hands in defeat, shaking her head.
"You are the worst kind of fool," She muttered and her poison wasn't nearly as thick as usual, "A trusting fool."
Ffion clapped her good-naturedly on the shoulder.
"One good thing about that, Morrigan," She replied, "You know I'd be the least likely to deceive you. We'll be back in a minute."
She and Alistair trailed after Forender with Tilly in tow. Which was allowed, the Dwarves being smart enough to realize that they would have missing limbs if they tried to keep the Mabari away.
Harrowmont was sitting at his desk when they were announced and he finished writing before getting to his feet and greeting them. This was done absentmindedly and, from the way he was standing, not looking them directly in the eyes, it was clear that not all had been said and done. Ffion's irritation spiked again just as sharply as it had with Forender and her grey eyes fixed on the Dwarf. She folded her arms over her chest and wondered fleetingly how long she could keep her temper in check.
"My Lord Harrowmont, you have something else you needed?" She had to force the title out of pure politeness. It was too easy for her to slip to her inbred nobility and the arrogance that went hand-in-hand with it.
"It's hardly right," Harrowmont answered.
"But you'll do it anyway," Alistair certainly wasn't asking and he forwent the niceties without a thought.
Harrowmont pulled rather self-consciously on his braided beard, his grey-blue eyes unhappy. It took a moment for him to look at them again and when he did, he spread his hands, palms up, in defeat.
"That doesn't make it any better," He directed that at Alistair and then focused on Ffion again, "If you truly mean to see this through, Warden, there's another catch."
"There's always a catch," Ffion answered easily, shifting her weight, and arching her brows. She tightened her arms over her chest, not liking how naked she felt without her armor, but there had been no way around that, "Usually, there are multiple catches. What's this one?"
Harrowmont began pacing, his hands clasped behind his back.
"In this type of situation, a vote from the Assembly is not enough. And that isn't about to happen, not with the dissension that has been sown," He paused briefly and then went on, "My people need words with more weight and pull than any of the lords and ladies have here in Orzammar. And the Assembly needs a decided voice to settle the disputes. A voice from the Ancestors or the Stone herself."
Ffion watched him through narrowed lids. It was all well and good that his voice was powerful and his passion shining through, but she couldn't stop that little needling telling her this wasn't going to be good for her party.
"And what will that run us?" Alistair asked, feeding off of Ffion's growing suspicions.
Harrowmont almost wrung his hands as he looked imploringly at Ffion.
"Before I go any further, just... remember our deal, Warden."
Alistair frowned, his honey colored eyes concerned.
"Deal?" He repeated, "What deal?"
"I'll explain later," Ffion's voice was much sharper than she intended, but she was getting pissed, "Way to throw my words back at me, my lord. Can we get on with this? We both know I have no intention of going back on my word."
Harrowmont searched her gaze and then gave a slow nod, satisfied with her promise.
"The word of a Paragon is needed and the one that is... Well, I won't say convenient, but... The nearest thing we have to a living Paragon is Branka. She was a brilliant noble who discovered a process of burning coal without the dangerous smoke, which is besides the point. Two years ago, she took her entire household, stewards, courtiers, servants, everyone, into the Deep Roads to search for the Anvil of the Void. They-"
"Anvil of the Void?" Ffion interrupted, "From the legends?"
"All legends have a basis in truth and this one is very true. The Anvil of the Void was used to create the Golems that protected ancient Orzammar," The Dwarf had instantly become teacher and it suited him, "Branka believed that our peoples' greatness could be restored with that piece of history and so she set out to discover the ancient smithy used by Caridin and our ancestors. For the first month we had regular dispatches from her, but they soon grew fewer and farther apart, and then, nothing. The last word from her house was that they had gained Caridin's cross, the deepest part of the Roads that anyone had ever reached. With the frequent stops to take notes and explore different passages, it had taken them some time. But with a small troop, if they were to go straight to the crossroads, and perhaps pick up Branka's trail from there... My scouts estimate a week to Caridin's Cross and from there, it's in the Ancestors' hands."
Ffion blinked, not quite understanding what he was telling her, and then her arms dropped and she stared at him in disbelief.
"And you expect us to find this fabled... Anvil?" She asked and heard the barely contained fury, "Is this a joke? I mean that's pretty damn presumptuous, deal or no deal."
"If I don't send you, Bhelen will send his own men," Harrowmont answered sharply, "It has to be Branka, there's no way around that, and it's gone from a race against one another to a race against the clock. The Assembly will be pushing the vote in two weeks, so you can see the reason behind the urgency."
"'It's hardly right,'" Alistair muttered darkly, "That's the biggest understatement, ever."
Harrowmont was still looking at Ffion and he shrugged, saying simply,
"We have a deal."
She rolled her eyes ceiling-ward and then met his gaze again.
"We have a deal," She repeated, "Quite the damn deal. Tell me we at least get maps."
"Of course," Harrowmont pulled a hefty stack of papers from his desk, "These are all the correspondence and maps that have been discovered, sent, or drawn up brand new," He handed these to Ffion, eyeing her carefully, "Are we agreed then? You'll search for Branka or whatever may remain of her and her house?"
Ffion couldn't promise that and Harrowmont knew it. She took the papers in her arms and searched the Dwarf's face. His desperation to get this done and the obvious embarrassment at having to ask this favor was almost enough to soften her, but then she remembered just what he was asking and it disappeared. Hating the fact that she had trapped herself with that promise to help and not able to worm around it, she lifted her shoulders.
"Tell you what, we'll go back to Tapsters, have a few drinks-"
"Probably curse your name,” Alistair interrupted and then added with a sheepish smile, "With all due respect."
"And talk this over with the others," Ffion continued, sending the ex-Templar a quick grin, "Considering the way rumors and general news travels in the city, we will just let the normal channels inform you of what we end up doing. It shouldn't take too much eavesdropping or bribery. And with any luck, we'll see you in two weeks, at the Assembly's vote."
Ffion didn't wait for Harrowmont's reply and left the room with Alistair and Tilly. They gathered up the others, refusing to give details until they were back at Tapsters. Once there, Sten commandeered a table in the corner, chasing away a group of merchant Dwarves that had been headed for it as well. Ffion began spreading her maps and the letters out while Alistair and Zevran went for drinks, and Morrigan leaned one hip against the table and watched the Warden. Wynne had gone upstairs for a restorative potion, not liking the look of pinched pain in Ffion's face, and Leliana snagged the chair closest to her, looking over the maps. Her pale blue eyes went wide as she realized what they covered and she glanced up at the Warden incredulously.
"The Deep Roads?" She questioned, "Are you quite serious?"
"Unfortunately... yes," She answered and braced herself for the onslaught.
"Oh, dear," The Orlesian sighed, cupping her chin in her palm as she examined the maps more closely.
"Are there not enough-"
"Listen, before you all explode, let's at least wait until everyone is here," Ffion interrupted Sten with her hands held up in a beseeching manner, "Nothing's been decided."
Morrigan snorted, folding her arms across her chest. Her gold eyes were annoyed and she exchanged glances with the Qunari.
"Do not play us for fools, Ffion," She said bitingly, "'Tis quite-"
"A fool, my lovely? You? Was that a confession?" Zevran was grinning as he and Alistair returned and Wynne appeared at Ffion's elbow, "Are we telling our deepest secrets? Makes for an excellent drinking game, yes?"
"I wouldn't celebrate too much just yet," Ffion cut in. She downed Wynne's potion with a grimace and immediately reached for the wine glass Leliana extended. Her grey eyes were on Morrigan and there was more than a hint of warning there, "You guys might want to sit down. We have some things to discuss."
With Alistair's help, Ffion relayed Harrowmont's request; putting up with the constant interruptions with admirable patience, she thought. When everything was, quite literally, on the table, the young Warden sat back and sipped at her red wine, waiting for the fireworks. Leliana reached out and played with the corner of one of the maps as though her fingers missed her harp. Wynne was frowning at Ffion, Zevran had remained uncharacteristically silent throughout the whole explanation and was still tight-lipped, while Morrigan and Sten once more swapped disgusted expressions.
"So this..." Morrigan swept one hand to encompass their gathering, "'Twas all for show then? You have clearly made up your mind, did you make up ours as well? Or do we get a say in this... catastrophe at all?"
Ffion blinked at the venom and slowly placed her goblet back on the table.
"Morrigan, you know I'd never consider doing that," She replied quietly, more hurt than angry at the witch's unfair assumption, "Whether you choose to follow me this time or not is entirely up to you. You're right, though, my mind is made up. Harrowmont gave me maps that detail the safest route to Caridin's Cross and from there... it's in the Maker's hands. But you all should know that my plan is to leave as soon as I've restocked."
"You know I'm in," Alistair said immediately and, try as he might, he couldn't hide the nervousness from his voice which somehow made it more endearing, "Although it's not my ideal spot for a vacation."
Zevran lifted his mug to Ffion, his eyes dancing.
"I am yours, my pet," He told her, his voice a purr as Alistair rolled his eyes, "And you cannot dispose of me so easily. Besides, Chirpy will persist in stumbling into traps; someone needs to catch him, yes?"
"I am in, too, Ffion," Leliana's lilting voice was quieter than usual, but it successfully halted Alistair's protest to Zevran's comment, "You have not led me astray and it would be wrong to desert you now."
"Me too," Wynne was firm, though her smile was as warm as ever as she looked at both the Wardens, "Leaving you without a healer? Maker forbid!"
Ffion smiled with the rest and couldn't help but glance at Sten and Morrigan as she stroked Tilly's ears. She struggled to keep the judgement from her eyes, knowing that was a sure-fire way to kill whatever agreement she might wring from them. Sten gazed at her steadily, his violet eyes puzzled, as though he was trying to figure out what she was planning. Morrigan, meanwhile, fiddled with her belt, eyes fixed on her work as her full lips pressed together.
"I think this is insanity," The Qunari finally said, "These Dwarves are using you, but I suppose your methods are not pure either."
Ffion's mouth tipped in a rather wicked smile as she inclined her head.
"No, they aren't," She agreed, "And Harrowmont knows that. He's getting what he wants out of this and I'm getting what I want."
"Yes, I see that," Sten's powerful shoulders lifted and he added, "I don't like this, Ffion, but I owe you my life. My blade is yours."
Morrigan muttered what sounded like several unbecoming curses at both Ffion and Sten, and her gold eyes snapped up to the Qunari.
"You had to use a reasonable argument," She said darkly and then shook her head as she turned her attention to Ffion, "Trusting fools, all of you, and I may be the worst yet. 'Tis absurd and I do not agree, but you have my aid as well."
Ffion had to fight to keep the smug smile from her lips. Instead she nodded again and glanced around at all of them.
"Then we're decided," She commented, "I'll go ahead and-"
"No, this time I'm putting my foot down, Ffion," The enchanter's tone was such that they didn't even consider arguing with her, "Meeting with Harrowmont was one thing; going into the Deep Roads when not one hundred percent? No, someone else will do the restocking while you wait here and rest."
This time Ffion couldn't prevent the grin from curling her lips and she ducked her head.
"Yes, ma'am," She answered meekly and then glanced around the table again.
"I'll go, dear," Leliana offered, seeing Ffion's look, "Anything specific or just the usual?"
"The usual," The Warden replied slowly as she swirled her wine around her glass, "Splurge on whatever we'll need for potions. Fresh stuff would be great if you can find it; if not... we'll have to make due."
"I'll go with you, Leliana," Alistair cut in, finishing off his mug and getting to his feet, "I need some more whetstones anyway."
"More?" Leliana repeated, disbelief in her voice, "Honestly, Alistair, you need to take up archery. Your costs would decrease drastically, no?"
They continued out, bickering like brother and sister, and Wynne got Ffion to her feet to shepherd her up the stairs and check her injury. Zevran was leaning across the table with that feral grin for the others. He waved one hand for another round and his voice floated up to Ffion, who couldn't help but chuckle,
"About that game of secrets, lovely, now we can play properly, yes?"
"I am being serious, Alistair," Leliana
commented as they wandered through the Commons, searching for available
supplies, "Archery is not so difficult if you apply yourself."
Alistair shook his head, his honey colored eyes unimpressed.
"Drop it," He replied dryly, "I've never been able to hit a target unless I have a sword in my hands and am standing within a few feet of it. Besides, I look like an idiot shooting a bow."
Leliana giggled, picturing that with much more ease than she thought she would. She studied him for a moment before she continued.
"You must have faith, my dear," She said simply and her cheeks dimpled, "I don't think it looks foolish."
"That's because you're built for it," He gave a wave that encompassed her small, petite frame, "You and Ffion both. It looks fine when you two use a bow. It's almost kind of like... I don't know, dancing, I guess. Or... kind of... Oh, Maker's breath! Never mind!"
The Orlesian was instantly amused. Alistair's obvious soft spot for his fellow Warden was too easy a spot to jab, and she really couldn't help herself.
"Dancing?" She repeated, trailing after the ex-Templar as he approached a table with potion bottles lining the top, "Yes, I suppose one could draw a comparison. I always thought it was comparable to sex, no? Becoming one with the bow, knowing each twist and turn of the wood, and how the string sighs with the slightest touch... Perhaps I will ask Ffion's opinion."
Alistair's eyes almost bugged out of his head and he stopped so abruptly it was like he ran into an invisible wall. The idea of someone having a discussion with Ffion about... No, it wasn't to be born!
"You – you can't be serious?" He asked weakly and felt color rush to his cheeks, "Ffion doesn't... I mean, she can't know about... that..."
Leliana dimpled at him in her most becoming manner, winking a little as she replied,
"You think not? Myself, I believe she has much more experience than anyone imagines. Zevran would not be so enamored of her otherwise, no?"
"No!" Alistair exclaimed, horrified. His color deepened as he realized the other shoppers were staring at them. He met the Orlesian's gaze and it dawned on him what she was doing. Letting out a half annoyed, half angry huff of breath, he added, "That's just... cruel."
"You do not wish us to... enlighten her, then?"
The ex-Templar continued to the stand, tossing over his shoulder,
"No, you shouldn't even... Oh, just... shut up."
It was nearly three hours later before they were ready and
Wynne would have delayed them further if Ffion had not forced the issue by
simply getting out of bed and shrugging into her armor. And that was only the
first snag. The second was figuring out what they were going to do with Syd.
The barkeep at Tapsters was kind enough to inform them that taking the donkey
into the Deep Roads would only increase their chances of attack since the
Darkspawn seemed drawn to beasts. And they were kind enough to refrain from
mentioning that as Wardens they would attract quite enough attention on their
own. Finally, after agreeing cover any additional costs, they talked the inn
owner into keeping the donkey there in his stables until the party returned.
Another snag was trying to divvy up the supplies between them. Sten would have shouldered practically everything had Ffion not put that discussion to death fairly quickly. She knew that the length of the trip would wear on everyone in time and there was no need to welcome that prematurely. They had things spread between their three rooms for the better part of an hour and a half before they finally figured it all out and started down the street to the entrance of the Deep Roads.
As they came up on the huge ornate double doors, the company of Dwarves guarding them stepped forward. The commander of the troop singled out Ffion and gave her a short bow.
"I'm sorry, Warden, I know what you mean to do and I can't let you in," He said formally but firmly.
Ffion frowned, her brows drawing together. Her lips parted to question him, but she was interrupted by a new voice as a burly Dwarf stepped from the shadows.
"Hell wi' formalities, man. This Warden is tryin' t' help us, let her, I say."
The top of this Dwarf's head came to Ffion's shoulder as he approached them. His armor was dark grey iron, finely crafted and well taken care of, but there was no weapon slung on his back and it looked as though he was painfully aware of this. His belt was also empty, save for a battered flask and another little pouch like the ones Ffion and Morrigan wore. The red hair was cut short, and they would have guessed it and the braided beard and mustache were dyed had the rest of the Dwarf's appearance not been what it was. His face was haggard, there were deep shadows under his green eyes, and the slight slur in his word affirmed the impression that he had just rolled to his feet off the tavern floor that afternoon. And then again, maybe it was that he had been drunk so often he had developed the impediment on his own. Ffion's family had had a groundskeeper like that, a man that had spent most of his young adulthood bouncing between taverns he never remembered, and it had taken its toll on his speech. She could still remember the way he would smile at her and Fergus, drawling out their names, always ready to show them some new sleight-of-hand trick that her brother was quick to master... But that was long in the past and the commander was now answering the Dwarf's charge.
"The law is the same, Oghren, though I suppose..." He trailed off and eyed first the Dwarf and then Ffion. Something flickered in his face and he gave a little nod, turning his attention on the Warden. There was a gleam in his gaze, like a restrained joy, and he went on, "I suppose if Oghren is with you, that changes things, Warden. The law states that you must have a representative or written approval from one of the Deshyrs to venture into the Deep Roads. I'm aware of the rumors that Lord Harrowmont himself has requested this, but with our unsettled Assembly... well, anyone could claim such a thing."
"But with Oghren's presence, things are in a different light," The commander interrupted Ffion without blinking and then glanced at the red-headed Dwarf, "You are going in with them, right?"
"'Course," Oghren's answer was gruff and automatic.
"Well, then," The commander waved to his men and they moved back to run the crank and open the doors, "The very best of luck to you, Warden. Atrast tunsha."
With a creak and groan of chains, the doors swung open, and two of the guards followed them in the short hall to open up the second set that appeared as well. Ffion found that she and Oghren together took the first step into the massive tunnel that yawned before them and it was only then that the others followed. The ceiling soared away above them, the packed earth supported on either side by colossal pillars that were carved and etched with designs and runes as old as time itself. The passage dwindled away to the left while the right hand side was blocked by a massive slide of stone and dirt. There was a river of lava directly ahead that followed the path they found themselves on, and though it cast everything in a red light, it was bright enough that they wouldn't need torches.
Ffion turned to Oghren with her arms folded over her chest as the others clustered around her. Her brows went up and she studied the Dwarf with interest. He wasn't paying too much attention, instead he was pulling out a big battleaxe and slinging it onto his back with a look of relief.
"Do you want to-"
"Yer gonna need me, Warden," He interrupted as he met her gaze with a directness that was rather refreshing, "Yer goin' after Branka? Well, I'm yer man. I know where she was headed an' I know what t' look for."
"And why should you be privy to that, Dwarf?" Sten's voice was cold.
Oghren's green eyes went around to the group as though suddenly realizing that it wasn't just himself and Ffion that had entered the Deep Roads. He couldn't seem to help but leer at Morrigan, Wynne, and Leliana before his eyes landed on the Qunari. Sten's appearance startled him, but unlike others, he wasn't too intimidated or fazed, and he looked back at Ffion again.
"There's nothin' bu' my word t' prove it, but I used t' be part of Branka's house," He replied simply, "Tha's been chewed up an' spit out now, an' doesn't change th' fact tha' I still know how t' find the girl."
"Important member, hmm?" Zevran's voice was all speculation, "Marriage does that quite easily, yes?"
The Dwarf snorted, rubbing one large square palm over his shorn hair.
"Nothin' chews yeh up an' spits you out like a pissed off wife," He agreed and shrugged his heavy shoulders, "I won' give yeh the whole story now. Le's jus' say spendin' too many nights passed out drunk at Tapsters didn' help."
"I can't imagine it would," Alistair cut in, "And we're already in here; we don't have much of a choice, Ffion."
Oghren gave the ex-Templar a nod.
"Yer pike-twirler's righ', Warden," He said.
"'Pike-twirler?'" Alistair repeated as Zevran laughed.
"Yes!" The Elf exclaimed, grinning at Oghren, "Perfect, and much better than Chirpy, yes?"
Alistair's cheeks tinted red as he continued frowning at the Dwarf. His honey colored eyes were confused.
"Because of the sword? How do you get 'pike-twirler' from that?"
Oghren gave another shrug, his green eyes scanning their surroundings as he shifted his pack around and started down the path. He clearly wasn't going to be talked out of accompanying them and he left them no choice but to fall in.
"Yeh need somethin' with a little more weigh' behind yer swings. Yer Qunari has the righ' idea."
Ffion walked next to the Dwarf and she gave Alistair a little wave to keep him from responding to that. Her grey eyes were on Oghren and she let out a resigned sigh.
"Well, Oghren, welcome aboard," She said, "Do you want to continue making up names for us or should we make introductions? You and Zevran could swap notes, he has a few nick-names handy."
Oghren looked around at the Elf who grinned at him. He swung back and glanced up at Ffion.
"We migh' not live long 'nough t' learn names, Warden, bu' if yeh want, I won't stop yeh."
The Warden caught herself just before she released another sigh. She was beginning to sound like her mother. But she knew that Oghren would give Zevran a run for his money as the most unpredictable and irrelevant member of their party. Sticking to her guns and wondering if the Dwarf was purposefully butting heads with her or just being pessimistic, she went on with the introductions. They pressed on in silence for a moment longer when Alistair, shuffling his feet almost self-consciously, finally voiced the question that he knew everyone had to be asking themselves.
"Without anything but our own bodies telling us, how are we supposed to know how long we've been down here?" His gaze met Ffion's as she glanced up at him with a frown, "I mean, Harrowmont said the vote was being pushed in two weeks, right? So we're just going to, what, beeline for this smithy that we're not even sure exists?"
"Surprisingly, he has a point," Morrigan cut in, "'Tis something we must decide, Ffion."
The Warden's frown deepened, but it was Oghren that spoke next.
"Lemme see yer maps, Warden."
Everyone halted beside him and Ffion set her pack on the carved stone, pulling the maps carefully from one of the pockets. She bent over them with the Dwarf and felt Alistair move in next to her. Oghren's gloved fingers walked along the inked path for a moment and he muttered quietly to himself before he met Ffion's gaze again.
"We're lookin' fer shortcuts, yeah? Well, if it'r me, I'd go this way," He trailed one fingertip south, on the map, from the symbol that designated his city. The map was worn and the ink faded in the corners, but it was clear that that would be the quickest route. Even so, Ffion felt a prickling of unease as he passed over a little group of what was supposed to be individual rooms. She couldn't help but wonder what was in there. The Dwarf went on, "Looks like tha's supposed t' be Caridin's Cross there. An' that means... two an' a half days, my guess."
Ffion studied the map, taking that in without a word, though she did exchange glances with Alistair. They were both thinking the same thing: if it took two and a half days to reach the crossroads, what would the timeline be after that?
Oghren was shuffling through the rest of the papers that the Warden had pulled loose and he suddenly let out a huff of breath.
"I'll b'damned," He said in disbelief and studied another map. His green eyes were on the Warden and he continued, "Did yeh see this one? It was folded up in wi' th' others."
Ffion leaned closer and looked over the map the Dwarf held. It was in worse shape than the one spread on the ground, but it seemed to be a continuation of it. Her brows furrowed together again and she plucked it from Oghren's fingers, lining it up with its partner. She drew back a little so the others could see and Leliana, studying them with narrowed blue eyes, read the small print next to one of the symbols.
"The Dead Trenches," Her voice was soft, the name spoken reluctantly, "Lovely name, no?"
"It's wha' we need," Oghren replied and repeated his careful reckoning of the miles, "It'd be 'nother... maybe four days."
Ffion gave a nod, her suspicions confirmed. They weren't going to have any extra time.
"Then let's get moving," She said with finality, gathering up the maps and replacing them in her pack.
They pressed on, sometimes talking amongst themselves, but for the most part staying silent. It was so much easier to hear what might be coming around any corners... or rather in their case, what was coming head-on at them. So far the stone 'road', according to Oghren, hadn't veered from its straight-shot leading them further into the earth. The Dwarf would have been a wealth of information, if they could have kept him on one topic for any length of time. But he had a trick of bouncing around, never letting them stay too long on a subject that interested any of them, and he did indeed succeed in being as irreverent as Zevran. The Elf was the only one of them that truly seemed to appreciate Oghren's surliness and his usually vulgar talk.
The only things Alistair and Ffion managed to learn of his private life in their joint campaign was that he had belonged to the house Kondrat before marrying Branka and she, with the power behind her own house, had absorbed his. He had also been quite a promising member of the warrior caste before something happened... And that's where the Dwarf changed the subject, thwarting and frustrating them at every turn. He also had a trick of veering off and studying the walls with intense concentration before joining them again. And he refused to elaborate on this, too.
Even with these traits, the Dwarf was an excellent addition to their party. Having lived in Orzammar his entire life, he knew how to judge the times. Though Morrigan had had a point when she questioned whether or not it really mattered while they were down here, apart from their deadline, she turned out to be wrong.
The road had reluctantly changed from its monotonous, beeline-type course, and it was only because there had been another cave in. To the right of this was an opening that stretched dimly, bridging the lava river, the light from which was not quite strong enough to penetrate the darkness. Tilly let out a tired sigh once they had ventured about twenty yards down this new tunnel, and she dropped to her haunches, whining at Ffion.
"The dog's got th' righ' idea," Oghren observed as everyone stopped, "We've covered 'nough ground t'day, Warden. Le's make camp 'ere."
Ffion didn't mind the Dwarf making that call. He knew so much more about this area than any of them and she was willing to trust his judgement. She gave a nod, noting that the others had been waiting on her approval, which both annoyed and pleased her. Having them depend so wholly on her word was beginning to chaff a little, never mind that this was what she had wanted since she saw how her brother's men devoted themselves so completely to him.
She untied her share of their packs and let it hit the ground with relief. It was only then that she realized how tired she was, and she almost would have skipped her tent entirely had Wynne not wanted to check her wound. There was no way she would allow that while everyone was watching. So she staked it, noting with an odd little rush of pleasure that Alistair was setting up his own right beside hers. She sent him a warm smile as Wynne ushered her within the privacy of her tent and wondered why the ex-Templar's face was suddenly bright red.
Oghren, not bothering with a tent, sat on his bedroll with flask in hand and he caught that little exchange between the Wardens. He grunted, shaking his head as he took another swig. The alcohol was creating that pleasant haze that he had been searching for, and then came the soft warning voice that told him he would have to watch his supply. Two weeks would probably be cutting it close. But then that other, louder voice was drowning it out, saying flippantly: Eh, what the hell!
So, he sat there and watched this odd little band that he had fallen in with. The Elf, whom he recognized as a kindred spirit, and the girl Warden, Ffion, were the only two that he felt particularly drawn to. The enchanter was another good one, he knew, and the pike-twirler was dependable at least. The others though... The Qunari clearly didn't want anything to do with him, nor did the witch, though he had plenty of reason to get cozy with her... And the red-haired bard was another he would have no argument against getting to know, though she seemed more interested in her music; and he couldn't help but notice the glances she cast at Ffion. Figures! He thought rather bitterly.
What fascinated him the most was how each and every one of them revolved around Ffion. The young Warden was not particularly impressive. She was small and slender, and though her voice carried and held a note of command, that note of born and bred nobility that expected to be heeded, nothing else really supported her position of leadership. And still all of them waited for her word, for her wave of agreement, or the frown that meant she was going to argue or disagree. And even when they didn't agree with her, none of them put their foot down or tried to go against her wishes with any of the drastic measures that he was used to seeing.
Ffion suddenly appeared again, fastening her armor in place, following his suggestion of trying to sleep in it since no one knew what to expect in the Deep Roads. She approached his spot with a small smile, her dog trailing behind, as always. She didn't presume an invitation to sit, and met his gaze squarely, both of which he appreciated.
"They're signs of Branka, right?" She questioned, "Those scratches on the stone?"
He grinned, the flask doing its work, and his natural liking of this girl finishing off his determination to keep details from her. Tipping the flask in her direction, he gave a slow nod, the floor wanting to come up and play with his face if he made any sudden movements.
"She's qui'e th' girl," He replied and even he could hear how quickly that new brew went to work.
Ffion's nose tickled with the smell of the ale and, though she had very little hands-on experience with it, her novice senses told her the Dwarf would be hurting in the morning. She shook her head a little and then decided to try and wring whatever she could from him while in this state.
"Is that her way of leaving her mark? Or did she know that someone might come look for her?"
"Branka? Na, she's jus' leavin' her mark," Oghren gave up trying to focus on her and lay back, carefully cradling the flask so that nothing spilled, "Don' yeh worry yer 'ead, War'en. We'll fin' her an' yeh'll ge' yer king crowned."
She shook her head again, mentally making the note to skip Oghren as far as watches went while they were down here. At least until she was sure that he would be able to handle them without passing out. The prone Dwarf started giggling, realizing what he said, and the Warden smiled before she could help it. It was quite obvious what he was thinking.
"Good night, Oghren," She said quietly and retreated to her tent as the Dwarf repeated,
"Ha, crown yer king. Ge' it, Warden? Hee, hee!"
Teagan sat, slump shouldered at Eamon's desk. He ran both
hands through his mussed hair and held his head for a moment. The Arl's health
was failing even more and Isolde was becoming frantic. Conner's return was a
miracle and Teagan could only thank the Maker and his mercy for the boy's
recovery. Without him, the Arlessa would have long ago done something drastic.
Gaile, the Elven mage, was another reason to be thankful. She had taken Conner completely under her wing and guarded him against using any form of magic unless she was present. She was also the one who had pointed out Eamon's sudden decline. Her abilities at healing were wonderful and she had been tending to the Arl whenever she had the chance and just that morning, during her update with Teagan, she voiced her concerns.
"My lord, he is fading," She said with a crease between her brows that accentuated her worries, "He was strong when I first examined him, clinging to what life he had with profound determination, and I am not sure what has caused this change."
"Is it because of Conner?" Teagan asked, voicing the first thing that came to mind.
Gaile's frown deepened, her pale green eyes lost in thought. Finally she gave him a small nod.
"I had not considered that," She replied, "It is possible that Conner had found a way to keep his father strong even as the demon ate away at his own soul. Very interesting, but not what you need to hear. We may have to act much sooner than the Wardens can."
Teagan sighed, his strength sapping at the thought. There had been no word from either Ffion and Alistair, or the soldiers that had departed for Denerim. Both of whom had left with all the speed they could muster. And as far as his own men went, there had been a rumor of finding mounts a little ways out from the village, but if that had been the case, some sort of missive should have shown up by now. And that was with the unrest in Ferelden. The Bann had dismissed Gaile to watch over his brother and nephew more closely than ever and to let him know the instant anything changed, and then he sat and considered what all of this could mean.
It was very grim.
Eamon was needed to stop Loghain and help Alistair come around to the idea of taking his father's throne. That had been decided between himself and Ffion before they left for Orzammar. The young Warden was adamant that Alistair step up and it had taken Teagan some time to convince her to wait. He knew that his adoptive nephew would be resistant to any talk of it and so wanted to wait for Eamon. Which now seemed unlikely to come about.
Stop it! He told himself fiercely, sitting up straight, and trying to convince himself to keep the faith even in the face of its complete impracticality. If Eamon didn't get well, then he would step up himself and do whatever he could to help. And that would be a fight in itself. Eamon had always been the statesman, knowing the right thing to say and when to say it, while Teagan never had the patience for it. But he would learn, if he had to.
There was a sudden knock on the office door and he straightened himself more before he called an answer. It was opened by Owen's daughter Valena who was the only one from the village to return to the castle and Isolde after the Wardens left. Her loyalty was endearing and sweet, and had given all of them reason to hold out and hope.
"Here, my lord," She said, extending one hand with a cream colored envelope between her fingers, "This just arrived. The messenger is in the kitchen if you'd like to see him."
Teagan couldn't hide his eagerness. He snatched the message from her and tore it open as he recognized the handwriting. It was a short note, scribbled in an obvious hurry:
Bann Teagan, There was a betrayal. Brother Genitivi's protégé was found murdered and an impostor was in place here. He preferred an attack to an interrogation and was killed in the assault. There were notes here though that I've sent with the messenger. It appears the brother had come quite close and was led to the village of Haven. We are headed back to Redcliffe with all haste and hope this finds you well.
- Captain Mevan
Teagan actually found himself smiling a little as he looked back at Valena who returned it. Her green eyes were questioning and she cocked her head, asking with that refreshing bluntness that had to have come from her father,
"Good news, I hope?"
"Better than I expected," He answered and got to his feet, feeling how tired he was as he did so, "That messenger is in the kitchen? I'll see him now. The only thing we can do is hope that the Wardens return in time."
"Then there's nothing to fear, my lord," Valena had clearly found a hero in Ffion and her eyes were shining with absolute faith. It was a simple, childlike faith, and something Teagan needed to see. Knowing there was someone who just implicitly trusted that everything would work in their favor was a breath of fresh air and the girl cemented this as she added, "She won't let us down."