Dragonlings, Drakes, and Cultists, Oh My!
Halfway through their third day on the road as they continued down the summit, Morrigan fell in beside Ffion and said in a soft voice,
"We must speak."
The Warden frowned at the witch, wondering what this could be about. Morrigan looked rather haggard and very concerned and Ffion's frown deepened. The witch was the one that was least likely to be touched by any of the events that had occurred and to see her gold eyes look so uncertain and worried hit a nerve with the Warden.
"All right, Morrigan," She answered, "Tonight then, we'll get together and you can tell me what's been troubling you."
Morrigan inclined her head, her raven hair slipping from its usual thick knot. Her eyes were relieved and she parted her lips to reply when Syd picked up his head curiously and Tilly growled. At Ffion's quick gesture, the company came to a halt and around the bend in the path ahead of them, a group of soldiers appeared. They held their hands up to show that they meant no harm and Alistair was the first one to recognize the armor.
"They're Teagan's!" He breathed in relief and then stepped forward, "What news?"
The captain of the band slipped from his mount, a horse that, though thin, whinnied with delight at the scent of Syd. Sten held their little donkey firmly as the soldier bowed, his hands still loose so they wouldn't do anything drastic.
"Wardens, the Bann sends word," He greeted, "If I may?"
He was gesturing to the horse's pack and Ffion couldn't help but roll her eyes.
"Listen, captain, time is kind of the essence here," She replied sharply, "Just... Let us know what's going on so we can make a decision."
The captain was surprised at her tone, but he turned back to the horse and pulled a little folder from the pack. He handed this over to Ffion and then clasped his hands behind him.
"My lord Bann wished for you to follow this lead," He said as the Warden opened the folder and studied the neat, rather cramped script, "The Brother Genitivi has been investigating the village of Haven, which is not far from here, but lately, no one has had word from him."
Alistair leaned to look at the papers over Ffion's shoulder.
"It looks like he believed that was the last step," He observed. A loose paper slipped from the leather folder and he caught it, spreading it open to reveal a fairly new, recently copied map, "The village of Haven... The captain's right, Ffion, it's not far at all from here. I'd say two, two and a half days at the most. It's up the Frostbacks again, but after Orzammar that shouldn't be too much trouble."
It was Ffion's turn to lean over him and then she sighed, slapping the folder closed, and pulling on a loose curl absentmindedly. She didn't wait for any fireworks and instead gave the captain a nod.
"All right, let the Bann know that we will investigate this and get back to him as soon as we can," She said.
The captain, relief spreading across his face, gave the party a bow and swung back up into the saddle. He put one fist over his heart and met Ffion's gaze.
"Maker go with you, Wardens, and bless you for your help."
He signaled to his men and they wheeled about, trotting back down the path. Ffion put one hand on Alistair's wrist to keep him from folding the map and instead studied it briefly. She got her bearings after a moment and for the first time, was pleased that she had had enough discipline to make herself learn how to read a map with accuracy.
"All right," She murmured, glancing around them at their surroundings, and then going on, "That has to be the little path that confused us on our way up here... Yeah, I don't think it could be anything but that."
"And that should be coming up here anytime," Alistair agreed.
They tucked the map into the folder and Ffion secured this in her little pack before they continued on their way. No one posed any arguments until they reached that rather neglected path and made the turn to hike up the Frostbacks once more. Sten came to a complete stop, almost dropping Syd's lead and staring hard at Ffion. Oghren, following along with the Qunari, was the one that made everyone else stop short.
"C'mon, horn 'ead," The Dwarf growled, "Ge' a move on."
Sten ignored that comment, not wanting to get into the argument again. Oghren would refuse to believe that not all Qunari had horns. His violet eyes were on Ffion and when she glanced back to see what the trouble was, he spoke before she could,
"So is your plan to keep heading west until we make a complete circle of the world and reach Denerim in time to watch it burn?"
The Warden blinked, not looking away from him.
"Sten, we don't have much choice," She replied finally, her frown deepening as his eyes flashed dangerously, "We need the Arl and, as far fetched as this is, there is no harm in just checking."
"And checking will turn into promising, and promising into facing off with foes that have nothing to do with the Blight," Sten was clearly unimpressed and he wasn't going to back down easily on this one either, "And this is not why I am here, following you."
Ffion let out a frustrated sigh and shifted to her other foot, turning so she could look at him full on.
"You promised me your blade, no matter what," She snapped and her words carried much more weight than anything he could come up with, "I need your help here, Sten, not more adversity. Are you going to have a problem keeping your promise?"
She tried desperately to keep her temper in check and she saw that she was actually on the right track here. The Qunari's eyes flickered with uncertainty, though the respect that had been growing after the past two weeks was now disappearing. His lips parted to answer and then pressed closed again. He gave her a single, solemn nod and then dropped Syd's lead.
"Very well, prove to me I am making the right choice here," He told her and one hand went back for his sword.
Tilly's hackles were up, Oghren watched everything with amusement, and Morrigan and Leliana were almost there as well. The Orlesian knew that Sten would never hurt Ffion and so could see how ridiculous this all was; and Morrigan was waiting for one or the other to be put in their place. Zevran, Alistair, and Wynne were the only ones to share the Mabari's concern and they instantly moved to step in. Wynne approached Sten; Alistair pushed Ffion behind him, while Zevran positioned himself in the middle of it all.
"What?" Ffion was incredulous, pushing Alistair in return, as her frown deepened, "What the hell are you talking about?"
The Qunari had his broad sword in his hands now, but hadn't taken any further steps.
"It is the noble thing to do," He answered, "We are at an impasse and my honor demands that we duel. The winner has the last say."
Ffion's brows arched up and she almost laughed, it sounded so ridiculous. Her hand was still on Alistair's shoulder and she let it slip away as she drew herself up and met Sten glare for glare; making a valiant effort to hide her amusement.
"The only thing I really have to say to you is Lothering," She replied and knew that this simpler tactic would work the best with the Qunari, "You owe me, Sten, and I don't have to prove anything else to you. If you want to go back on your promise, damage your honor even more, and live with that, be my guest. I'll even let you take Syd... but we get the packs. It's your choice and you'll have to decide now, I'm not going to wait around and argue with you; time is pretty crucial, you know."
She turned and continued up the path, Tilly falling behind her. Alistair spared a particularly dirty look for the Qunari and trailed them. As the others moved to follow, Zevran glanced up at Sten, Oghren pausing beside them. The Qunari reluctantly slid his blade away, his violet eyes blazing as they followed their little Warden up the path. He was clearly not in the mood to be trifled with, but that had never stopped Zevran before.
"Remember what I said about a woman's curiousity, my Qunari friend?" The Elf quizzed, "It is even worse to argue with them and now you see my reasoning, yes? Give the dove a chance and do not make this a competition. You won't win."
"All right, Morrigan, you wanted to talk to me?"
Ffion, her cloak snuggled around her, settled on the ground as close to the
flames as she could get, and welcomed Tilly's heavy weight next to her.
The witch paused for a moment and then gracefully dropped cross-legged across from her. Her slender fingers were clasped tightly and her bun wasn't nearly as immaculate as it had been. She let out a small breath that was nothing but a brief cloud of white in the icy air and was visibly nervous for one of maybe two times since Ffion met her.
"Yes, I have been studying the grimoire that you gave me and I must say, 'tis most... interesting."
Ffion cocked her head, studying Morrigan's face in the flickering firelight.
"Interesting?" She repeated, "You don't mean it quite that way."
"No, no I do not," Morrigan looked into the flames and it took her some time before she went on, "What you gave me was not what I believed it to be. It is not Flemeth's collection of spells, as I hoped, instead 'tis a kind of journal. Through this, I have discovered how she has remained young, living as long as she has been."
"So Alistair was right then?" Ffion couldn't help but tease, blurting the very first thing that popped into her head, "She boils little children and uses their youth to restore hers?"
Morrigan snorted, looking more like herself for a moment before lifting her shoulders a little and replying,
"He is closer to the truth than I would have believed him to be," She said the words with a look of disgust, as though they even tasted bad, "All the tales claim that Flemeth has had many daughters, daughters that disappear when they reach a certain age, and propagate the legend of the Witch of the Wilds. That journal has corrected my thinking on this subject. I believe now that I am her only true daughter and the rest were merely... victims."
Ffion frowned at the witch, not able to see where this was heading.
"I don't understand, Morrigan," She said, "What do you mean 'victims?'"
"Through the years, if that journal is to be believed, Flemeth has found beautiful young women to adopt as her own. When the time is right, when age starts to take hold, she uses her magic; a very old magic, and takes over the woman's body as her own. This is why she has lived for so long... and why all of these 'daughters' seem to disappear. She becomes them."
The Warden could feel her eyebrows inching up, but she didn't look away from Morrigan. This was more than a little far-fetched, but having met Flemeth and knowing the witch was the reason she, Alistair, and Tilly were still alive, helped to substantiate Morrigan's point.
"But that would mean..."
"I am her next victim," Morrigan looked genuinely frightened and her fingers knitted together tightly, "'Twill not be born. I will not sit about like an empty sack waiting to be filled."
Ffion shook her head, holding up one hand as she tried to get her mind wrapped around this.
"Just... wait a minute, Morrigan," She said firmly, "If this is what Flemeth has planned, why would she let you go? What guarantee did she have that you would return home to her?"
"This is why I had to speak with you," Morrigan was almost hesitant, "I know Flemeth's determination; she will not let me rest easy. I feel that this was my last test and that she is watching closely. The only remedy to this would come about with her death and I wish to ask for your help."
"Whoa, whoa, just hang on a second," The Warden's hand went up and her grey eyes were incredulous, "Flemeth's death? Morrigan, you can't expect-"
"How is this different from anything else you have been promising and seeing through?" The witch had clearly anticipated Ffion's arguments and wasn't about to give her the upper hand here, "And if you are worried about the traveling, you need not be. Mother said so herself. That swamp will be overrun by Darkspawn and she will be on the move. I am in need, Ffion, and I came to you because I know you will weigh each option carefully and then-"
"And then do it anyway?" Ffion was the one to interrupt this time and she arched her brows again, though it was more so in amusement, "How can you be so sure that she won't be south of Lothering anymore? Come to think of it, how do we know that she's even still alive?"
Morrigan snorted and was back to their cool, composed, and utterly superior witch. She sat straight, her gold eyes becoming scornful, and the heavy cloak went ignored as it slipped from her shoulders.
"Darkspawn killing off the great and fearsome Flemeth?" She questioned, "They would have had to be incredibly lucky to accomplish this. I know that she has been watching me and am surprised that you would believe she would let you go without some sort of stipulation: known or unknown. Please, Ffion, I am asking you out of... desperation, really. We will be traveling from Redcliffe to the Brecilian Forest by the road, I am sure, and that means we will pass right by what remains of Lothering. Flemeth will not be far from there, I could almost promise you."
Ffion let out a breath, not able to hide her smile. She gave Tilly a pat and wished that she didn't feel so compelled to help the witch. But Morrigan, in spite of her snide comments and poisonous sarcasm, had followed Ffion in all of her decisions, and her support in the Deep Roads was not something to be taken lightly and then forgotten. So she found herself giving the witch a nod.
"'Almost,'" She repeated, "Therein lays the catch... Though, like I told Harrowmont, there's always a catch. Okay, Morrigan, when we head to the Brecilian Forest, we'll try and track down your mother so that you-"
"No, you, and you alone," The witch interrupted and went on before Ffion could say anything else, "Flemeth must be killed and her real grimoire taken if I am to be safe from any further ties to her magic or lingering aspects of her power. And if I were to accompany you, none of this will come about; everything would be ruined. I cannot go with you, Ffion, 'tis up to you."
"Naturally," The Warden's voice was very dry, "All right, you have my word. Now get to bed, we have more ground to cover tomorrow."
Alistair was sort of right about this being similar to
Orzammar. He only missed the fact that the path to Haven was about twice as
bad. The track was narrow and very steep, making Tilly and Syd both nervous.
Wynne wasn't a fan of the height either and in a few spots, where they had to
follow a precipice and the rocks and trees fell away completely, she almost
couldn't make it. Alistair and Zevran both stepped in to help out and they were
able to press on. It wouldn't have been so difficult if they hadn't had to deal
with snow and ice practically the whole way. The cold was worse than it had
been around the Dwarven city as well and the air was much thinner. Camping the
second night was miserable and the whole party was becoming short with one
another by the time they reached the last little track and saw the roofs of the
village. There was a guard lounging at the top of this incline and he was first
shocked and then annoyed as they approached. Ffion summoned up a smile for him,
but he spoke before she could.
"What's this?" He demanded, "What are you doing in Haven?"
The Warden blinked, her smile disappearing. She studied the guard briefly and felt her own annoyance spiking.
"We're looking for Brother Genitivi, not that it's any of your business," She answered coldly, "Where would I find him?"
"Never heard of him," The guard waved dismissively back the way they had come, his armor glinting in the rather watery sunlight, "We don't want visitors. You lot can go right back where you came from."
Ffion drew herself up, forgetting the biting cold and the shivering, sleepless nights. Her grey eyes fixed on the man and her lips parted to snap back at him. She was not in the mood to argue with a mere guard and she was short enough on patience that her blades were calling to her.
"Where is your Chantry, ser?" Wynne's voice was gentle but steely as she cut in, stepping next to Ffion and preventing the Warden from speaking her mind, "We wish to restock and perhaps speak with the lay sisters."
"Use the store for restocking, our revered father is giving a blessing and-"
"Oh, that would be lovely to hear," It was Leliana this time and she put a warning hand on Ffion's arm briefly before adding, "We have come all this way without hearing a blessing. Please, may we go up and listen?"
Zevran shook his head minutely at both Oghren and Alistair as they opened their mouths to add their own two bits. Sten shifted restlessly, but could tell that the women were making headway using these spiritual arguments and kept his threats to himself. Ffion, too, could now see that Leliana and Wynne had read the situation perfectly. The guard was not merely being impolite, he was hiding something vital, and the Orlesian's play (or perhaps not a play) at religious zeal was working. He studied her briefly and could see nothing but a desire to worship. Reluctantly, he nodded his head.
"Very well," He said gruffly, "Up the hill there, but after that, you're done. The guards up there will send you back."
"Of course, thank you very much," Leliana dimpled at the guard, looking pleased and content, "Andraste bless you for your kindness."
They skirted him and entered the little courtyard. There were simple wooden cottages and buildings with thatched roofs, they could hear the soft lowing of cattle and the scratchings and cooings of chickens and doves. Only a handful of people were visible here and they watched the party suspiciously as they headed up the next path and to the second courtyard.
"Revered father, huh?" Alistair said softly when it was clear no one would hear him.
"It's not so unusual," Wynne was forever the teacher, "A small, isolated village such as this... It makes sense that they would cling to the older practices. What concerns me more is the secrecy here. We have Genitivi's own writings, saying that this is where he was headed. Do you think that he never arrived?"
"One way t'find out," Oghren was clearly ready for a fight.
Ffion sent him a little smile.
"Easy, Oghren," She replied, "Don't get too excited just yet. Let's just find out what's going on here."
Leliana studied the pretty little Chantry as they approached and her blue eyes were speculative.
"I think he was here," She said softly, "They are hiding something and I believe it concerns the brother."
They walked up the few steps to where the door stood unguarded and entered the Chantry without opposition. That second courtyard had been empty of people and the only buildings were the Chantry and one rather extravagant home; which was no doubt the revered father's. The emptiness was probably a good thing, too. Within the Chantry, there was a group of about a dozen: a mixture of what looked like village elders, four more guards, and a middle aged man who was extending one hand to those gathered, his greying head lowered as he spoke the blessing. Oghren, holding the door open for Sten whom Syd reluctantly let go, allowed it to slam shut and made the group jump and look at them in surprise. The revered father's eyes narrowed as he straightened himself and studied Ffion's party coolly.
"What is the meaning of this?" He demanded and raised one hand to his guards without giving a thought to how drastic it looked.
"We have come to he-"
"We've come to find out what you've done with Brother Genitivi," Ffion interrupted Leliana smoothly, stepping forward and dismissing the elders and guards. Her gaze was fixed on the revered father and she wasn't willing to beat around the bush anymore, "We know he ventured here in his quest and we need him."
The father drew himself up, his gaze becoming ice.
"You have no business here," His deep voice was fierce and Oghren was justified in pulling loose that huge battleaxe, "Where is Garreth? Why did he allow you entry?"
Wynne tried to mend the damage that Ffion had caused, but it was obvious this situation was unraveling fast.
"Please, ser, we merely wished-"
"You wished to cause a disturbance and you have," He interrupted, "I will not listen to more."
Without a word from him, the guards advanced with the elders in tow, and he himself pulled the finely carved staff from his back. Tilly jumped in front of her lady as two of the elders faced off with her and Alistair whirled to protect her back. Sten and Oghren were the targets that most of the people went for, while the father stood back and tried to command the room with his spells. Which Morrigan and Leliana were quick to prevent. Save for the four guards, none of the others wore armor and the fight was not difficult. The father went down without an attempt at surrender and Zevran immediately began prowling the room, studying the walls and shelves as Leliana and Morrigan went through the fallen bodies. Sten and Oghren turned to the door, half expecting the fight to have been heard, while Ffion searched through the father's robes and lifted a heavy medallion from his neck to study it. Zevran's soft exhalation was followed by a light click and Wynne crossed the room to him.
A section of brick slid away, slipping into the wall as though it was a pocket. Ffion stood from her crouch, flipping one of her knives into her palm. Alistair and Tilly were beside her as she followed Wynne.
"It seems they did have something to hide," The enchanter murmured.
Sten and Oghren left the doors, locking them, and joined Morrigan and Leliana as they all crowded the entry to this new room. It was cluttered with bookcases and chests, the rugs threadbare, and there was a layer of dust that led them to believe it was seldom used. Ffion was the first to step in completely. The bookshelf in front of her hid the rest of the room and when she rounded this, the flickering of torchlight illuminated the prone figure on a rather grimy bedroll.
"Wynne," The Warden said swiftly.
She dropped to her knees beside the man and felt for a pulse in his neck. His face was pale and gaunt; the thinning hair almost black and a scruff of beard covered his chin and neck. His body was lanky and he would have been quite tall, as long as what looked like a badly broken leg didn't ruin this. There was a weak throb of a pulse and he moaned softly when he felt Ffion's fingers.
Wynne cast the healing spell over him and Ffion felt the heartbeat drum a little bit stronger. The leg seemed to right itself some and the man moaned again, this time more loudly.
"'Ere, boss," Oghren crouched beside Ffion as their patient's eyelids fluttered. The Dwarf was extending his flask, "One sip o' this an' he'll wanna take on yer Archdemon."
"Barehanded, yes?" Zevran rifled through one of the chests that he had picked with ease.
"An' on his own," Oghren spared the Elf a quick grin as he took the flask again.
The man on the ground began coughing, his brown eyes coming open. They locked on Ffion and he instantly raised his thin hands as though to ward off a blow. The Warden reached out and gently took them in her own, lowering them so she could look into his face.
"Brother Genitivi?" She questioned quietly and then smiled as he nodded, "It's all right, you're safe now. How's the leg?"
He glanced around at them all rather wildly and then began to relax as none of them tried to harm him. He looked back at Ffion with absolute trust in his eyes and then flexed his foot. The smile that broke his face was wan, but it made his brown eyes light with warmth.
"Better," He croaked and tried to clear his throat, "I... Much better."
Leliana materialized at Ffion's elbow with a glass of clear water and the Warden slipped one arm around the brother's shoulders to help him sit up. He clung tightly to her, but was able to sit on his own once she had him up. He gulped the water down gratefully and, when he looked at each of them again, he took time to study them.
"What was that?" He asked Ffion, "That... grog you gave me at first?"
The chuckle rumbled through Oghren's chest and his green eyes were dancing.
"Makes yeh feel like a man, don' it?" He offered with a wicked grin.
"Ah, liquid courage," Genitivi was still flexing his leg, looking down at it in wonder, "What-"
"You don't want to know what's in it, trust me," Alistair interrupted him and winced as Oghren thumped him on the back with a laugh.
Ffion was studying the brother as Tilly sniffed around him almost questioningly.
"Lady Isolde told us that she was funding your research into the Urn of Sacred Ashes," She said, getting them back on track, "But that was before the Arl's illness, correct?"
The brother blinked at her, accepting the second cup of water from Leliana. His brown eyes were instantly concerned.
"The Arl is sick? No - I mean, yes - she contacted me before... I had no idea," He studied Ffion's face and gave a nod, "The Ashes, that's why you're here. The Arlessa knows the Ashes could cure him. I have come so close! The temple is just up the mount, but..." His voice trailed off as his already large eyes grew wide in that pale face, "Eirik and all the rest! How did you... They will-"
"Rest easy, brother," Leliana's voice was soothing, "They will not be able to harm you or anyone else ever again."
"They preferred fighting to answering questions," Morrigan leaned against one of the bookshelves, her voice cool and calm, "And we obliged."
The brother welcomed Wynne's offer of food with thanks and did an incredible job of ignoring Tilly as she perched on her haunches, watching him expectantly. He spoke with Morrigan's same collected calm.
"This is why it was always my contention that those within the Chantry travel when they could," He spoke around bites, his appetite understandably ravenous, "It does no one any good to sit and brood in a dark chapel with nothing but their own morose thoughts for company."
"So you must ask yourself why you want to join in the first place," Sten's deep voice was biting.
Ffion shook her head at him, sparing Zevran a quick glance as one of his lock picks broke in another chest and he let out a sharp curse. He went back to work and she turned her attention to Genitivi. The brother was looking up at Sten with something akin to pity and she cut in before they could start on that. Now was not the time for a debate on spirituality.
"You're right," She said, "The Arlessa does believe the Ashes will cure him. And you said you were close? So, this is accurate?"
She was pulling loose the folder from the little pack slung about her waist. Genitivi's face lit up, his brown eyes glowing as he reached for his worn folder. He let it fall open across his legs and he riffled through the pages for a moment before looking back up at Ffion with a broad smile.
"Yes, it's accurate," He answered and his fingers were pressing the papers almost reverently, "Thank you, a million times over, thank you, for returning this to me. I tracked the Urn here, but they were less than receptive of my asking questions. When I pushed, they pushed back. I've lost count of the days that I've been here, but I cannot tell you how frustrating it has been, knowing that the temple is right there and being unable to investigate it."
Ffion was smiling at him again, her eyes challenging and more than ready for this task.
"That's where we come in," She said simply, "You said the temple is further up the mountain? So, we won't have to go back to the village?"
"We shouldn't have to," He frowned, "They let you in without opposition?"
"We merely told your charming guard we had a wish to hear a blessing," Zevran was returning to their little huddle, the pockets in his belt more full than usual, "Lovely Leliana was a very distracting foe."
Genitivi glanced at the redheaded bard with a small smile as she scoffed.
"You lied," He clarified.
"We found you, so it evens out," Alistair cut in, putting one hand to the brother's elbow as he tried to get his feet under him, "Are you sure you're ready to-"
"I've waited long enough," He interrupted, but still needed both the Wardens' help in standing, "Eirik will have the key to the temple on him. That was how I knew I was so close. Most think it's merely a medallion, but I've studied enough to know the truth."
"Medallion?" Ffion repeated and lifted the medallion she had taken, "You mean this one? I thought there was more to it."
"That's it," The brother's voice was stronger and though he was still leaning on Alistair, it wasn't nearly as much as before, "Come, the temple door is not far."
They entered the main room, where the bodies were still sprawled, and fitted Genitivi with a heavy wool cloak, knives, and a short sword. Leliana also found a fur cap that she handed over as Ffion made introductions. They left the Chantry as easily as they had entered it, Sten locking the doors again with a key lifted from one of the guards, buying them a little extra time in case it was needed. Genitivi, still walking with Alistair's assistance; Ffion close by in case she was needed, led the way around one corner of the building and towards a small path. It was cleverly concealed by bushes and there was a pile of neatly stacked firewood they had to maneuver around in single file to start up the mountainside once more. The brother was right though, it wasn't far and soon, they were climbing rough stone steps that were clearly natural formations, to a smooth facade of stone that had an odd little indentation in its surface. Genitivi straightened from Alistair's support and glanced at Ffion.
"May I see that key?" He questioned.
The Warden handed it over and they all watched he pressed the indentation expertly, revealing a bizarre looking keyhole. Turning his attention to the medallion, he clasped it with both hands and must have hit little pressure points, as the thing sprang open, taking on the same shape as the keyhole. He inserted it and a moment later, they were pushing open the door to a vast chamber. Within, the ceilings skyrocketed over them, icicles had formed from the stalactites and the smallest of these were three times the girth of Sten, but nearly all had reached the ice covered floor. There were a few openings in the stone ceiling that had allowed snow to fall inward and the mounds were piled enormously high against the walls, spreading down in small avalanches that made their footing rather precarious.
Genitivi was leading the way, looking around in awe at the enormity of it all and wanting to get closer to some of the carvings that were steadily getting buried by the ice and snow. It was Sten who heard the crackling of fire and soft murmur of voices.
"Hold," His deep voice was rather like a rumble and it brought Ffion up short. Alistair was grabbing at Genitivi to hold him steady, "There is someone else here."
They proceeded cautiously, moving around another pile of snow and coming in clear view of a massive bonfire and the half dozen figures that were gathered around it. The fire was in a pit at the base of a wide staircase and Ffion's party could see the outline of a second set of steps and double doors through the smoke that was creeping out of one of the openings above. The group around the fire saw them at the same time and shouted the warning. Instantly, a door that was unseen at first opened off to the right, admitting another small troop. They all charged at Ffion's company and Alistair was pushing Genitivi back as the rest crowded up between the brother and these foes. The fight was intense but short. Once more, only a few of the enemies wore any armor and seemed to depend solely on the five mages to command the battlefield. Leliana hadn't given them that chance and they were crowding the fire, drawing in its warmth, and making a plan of attack within moments of the fight ending. Oghren had volunteered to make a sweep through the hall where the additional forces had emerged and Zevran accompanied him. It hadn't taken them long and they were returning in no time, the Elf handing Ffion a heavy ring of keys as Genitivi offered the solution to what was the most pressing problem.
"I am no good to you with this leg," He was saying, "And even if it hadn't been broken, I'm no fighter. I'll remain here with your donkey, if you want to leave him, and make notes on what I find. If I hear any other enemies coming... Well, I'm sure there are places to hide us both."
"There is a closet in the closest room, in fact," Zevran answered and picked the keys from his Warden again. He removed a delicately crafted silver one and gave it to the brother, "It should just fit you and our loyal Syd."
Ffion had finished preparing herself for the task at hand and she was meeting Genitivi's gaze.
"Is there anything special that we need to know about these people?" She asked, "Will they always attack or do we have a chance at compromise?"
"They are a rather fanatical cult who believe that their calling is to protect the Ashes from any prying eyes," Genitivi was having a hard time keeping his own eyes solely on the Warden; he badly wanted to study the hall in depth, "And I don't believe any will be willing to surrender. They won't understand that you are here to help another, that you have no plans to disturb the Ashes..." His gaze suddenly leveled on her in complete seriousness, "Which you don't, right? Your heart must be pure if you mean to reach the Urn, if not... Well, let's just say that this temple was designed to keep those with ill intentions from ever getting close."
"You mean traps?" Wynne clarified.
"Indeed," The brother nodded, "I can't tell you for sure what you will find, but watch your asses, if you'll excuse my crudeness."
Ffion chuckled as Oghren and Zevran laughed in delight.
"We will," She promised and then added on a more serious note because she felt she had to, "I only want to help the Arl. As far-fetched as this sounds... I have to try; there's that hope that it will work."
"Of course she does," Morrigan couldn't seem to help but add her two bits.
Genitivi wasn't listening to the witch; instead he was inclining his head again, his brown eyes pleased.
"You'll be all right, Ffion. And all the works I have read, any of the studies over the past years, have all suggested that the temple is at the top of the mount. So whatever you find in this fortress, just remember to keep climbing up," He said and took Syd's lead in one hand, "Andraste guide you."
"And you as well," Leliana replied with a dimpling smile.
They left the warmth of the fire as the brother pulled Syd's food bag out and distracted him from Sten's leaving. The party moved up the steps carefully as the ice had crept in even this far and reached the second stone landing. There was a single door off to the left, partially hidden in the shadows, and there had once been one directly opposite, but a cave-in had done away with it some time ago. The double doors were set in the center of the wall ahead and in the middle of the landing was a wide, bowl-shaped fire pit, laid in readiness for a flint.
Ffion approached this and tugged out her flint. The landing was so dark that it would be nice to see what they were doing as they tried to unlock the double doors. Leliana stepped with her and was putting one hand on the Warden's arm.
"Here, Ffion," She said, handing over a long taper, "Everything within this temple is related to Andraste, no? Then to light this fire, I believe you should use this instead."
Ffion eyed the unimpressive taper, doubting that it would do much good, and then shrugged her shoulders.
"Sure," She replied and took the taper in her fingers, "Of all of us, you would know what's best here."
She ignited the taper instead and set it to the fire pit. In a blink of an eye, the flames swept through the bowl, snapping and crackling at the wood, and burning with a bluish-white fire that was eerily pretty. The landing was lit with the clear light of the flames and the warmth began to seep through the frigid air like a sigh of relief. Leliana let out a soft breath and smiled at the company.
"There, the brother will be safe," She said and the surety of her words made them frown at her.
"What do you mean?" Alistair quizzed, his head cocking a little as he studied the Orlesian, "How can you be sure?"
"Can't you feel it?" She replied and opened her arms a little. Her copper head inclined to the fire, "That is Andraste's flame; it is meant to protect and it has changed the air here. Brother Genitivi will have nothing to worry about now."
Morrigan rolled her eyes and Sten grumbled under his breath. Zevran lifted his shoulders at Ffion who was looking at the Orlesian speculatively.
"The air feels warmer," Alistair conceded, "But with a fire lighted, that kind of makes sense, right?"
Ffion ignored the sarcasm in the ex-Templar's voice and the way Oghren chuckled. She and Wynne, who had stepped beside her, exchanged glances. Tilly whined softly and pushed against her lady's hand, ready to go.
"Of course Genitivi will be fine," The Warden finally offered, "Now, let's move on. We have no idea how extensive this place is, so the sooner the better."
Zevran went to the doors, already jangling the keys in one hand. As usual, he could read the lock expertly and picked the right key on the first try. The doors jumped out at them a little and they entered another hall, this one on a much smaller scale. Its walls were stone slabs and there were no openings in the ceiling here. A set of stairs led up across from them and the landing ran along both sides of the hall as well as right to the next door. The party was halfway across the room when the door opened and a mage stepped to the edge of the stairs. He didn't say a word and instead gathered his power to him and thrust his staff into the air. There was a series of pops and hisses and a dozen flaming abominations erupted from the stone to gather around the party. Leliana's bow whipped out and she was firing at the mage, but the arrows fell harmlessly away, bouncing off the shield of energy that he had conjured around himself.
"Ice, Wynne!" Morrigan shouted at the enchanter and then bolted for the steps.
The witch ducked around the abominations, trusting Leliana to cover her (which she did) and when her foot touched the bottom stair, she disappeared. In her place was a massive spider that darted up to overtake the mage with a horrifying speed. The rest of the party fell back, letting Wynne conjure an ice storm, and Alistair was the one that drew the abominations together at the bottom of the stairs. They followed him and didn't stand a chance in the enchanter's onslaught of water and ice. Leliana took out the last one and the ex-Templar hardly realized how close the monster had come; he was too busy gaping at Morrigan as the witch, herself once more, leaned on her staff at the top of the steps.
"You want to explain why you haven't used that before?" Alistair questioned, feeling the tug of the taint as Ffion passed by him and headed up the steps.
"She has," The Warden replied simply, her grey eyes on Morrigan, "How do you think she was able to sneak up on us so easily that day in the Wilds? Tilly knew that that wasn't just a swarm of bugs; it's hard to get one by a Mabari."
"A fact that I have not forgotten," The witch's voice was tired, but her color looked better, "She is a remarkably... observant animal."
Tilly let out a pleased woof as they reached Morrigan and Wynne handed her a potion bottle, the contents of which made her look a little more like herself.
"Shape-shifter, huh?" Oghren surprised them all by knowing what Morrigan's talent was and then brought them back to reality, "Tha's excitin'... In the righ' way."
The witch looked at him so coldly it was a wonder that he didn't turn to ice, and then she shifted her attention. She didn't have to explain her tactics, but she felt she owed it to Ffion at least.
"This coward would have had to release his shield to attack me while I was in that form," She said, consciously treading on the mage's fingers as they walked to the next door, "And nothing any of you could have done would have taken him out. I was doing what was necessary."
"Nice to know we could have had that in the Deep Roads," Alistair's tone was more than a little bitter and his honey eyes were hard.
"Please, don't," Ffion cut in before Morrigan could retaliate, "No reminiscing about the Deep Roads for a while."
"At leas' not 'til we can get good an' drunk," Oghren agreed.
Ffion mentally cursed her blushing cheeks and then forgot them as Zevran stepped to the door and Alistair said quickly,
"Right, but now's not the time. Later, yeah?"
Leliana wasn't quick enough to stifle her giggle as Ffion frowned at the ex-Templar. She glanced between him and Zevran, her lips parting, and then Sten pushed forward.
"This is nonsense," The Qunari's deep voice was short, "And taking up time. Let's move on."
The Elf had opened up the door and they found themselves in a wide, circular room with two hallways leading off opposite each other. There was a little raised dais ahead of them and the curved wall held idols and torches that flickered with the opening of the doors. Ffion glanced between the halls and could see the far wall at the end both of them.
"I think these will lead to the same place," She said softly, still uncertain, "I guess we'll just have to try and see what happens, yeah?"
"We don't really have any other choice," Wynne agreed.
The Warden chose the right hand hall and as they crossed to it, there was a familiar crack and the room filled with an acrid smelling smoke. An ash wraith dove at them and Sten bore the full brunt of the attack. It knocked the Qunari back into Oghren and they simultaneously cursed as they tried to untangle from one another. Morrigan and Wynne were quick to step in while the others were busy with the cultists that poured from both ends of the hallway. The smoke cleared, Leliana took out a mage that was standing well back in the hall, and Tilly downed a warrior that making for Alistair. Sten, still raging over the first attack, hating that he had been caught off guard, charged down the hall, swinging the huge sword and carving a path for the others to follow. Morrigan lingered in the main room after the wraith was killed and she pulled her power together, sending a blizzard through the opposite hall to take care of any stragglers and then bolted after the company.
The Qunari battle cries echoed through the stone hall and Sten didn't slow as they rounded the corner and faced off with more foes. Oghren was laughing in a kind of sick pleasure, getting caught up in Sten's bloodlust as well, and Zevran had to think quickly as his sharp eyes caught a trip wire just ahead. It was at the top of a few steps, stretching the width of the hall, and explaining why the next group of cultists was hanging back. He whipped out one of his knives and snapped the trip wire while snatching at Sten's arm with his free hand. Luckily, he expected the Qunari's reaction and threw one blade up as Sten turned on him. Their swords crashed together and Zevran was knocked into Ffion as the trap blew.
Its explosion pushed them back and for one heart-stopping moment, the Elf was afraid he had just blocked their way forward. They were coughing and blinking in the dust and debris, and Sten forgot his fury. He backed away from Zevran without an apology and turned to look down the hall. The Elf had had the right idea. The cultists sprawled on the floor and the way was clear.
"Next time, Sten, reign in on that a little," Ffion said dryly, pushing away from the wall she and Zevran had crashed into, "Unless you really do have a death wish?"
Not surprisingly, the Qunari wasn't perturbed; instead, he continued down the hall, this time in a brisk walk.
"It seemed a good idea," He replied as they followed, "And it worked for a little while."
"Just remember: nice open spaces," Alistair's voice was sarcastic and he knocked dust from his hair, watching with a little twinge of jealousy as Zevran brushed a few bigger pieces of debris from Ffion's shoulders, "Keep that in mind and we'll get along great."
"Teamwork," Leliana added brightly.
They came up on another doorway and Sten slowed, glancing sidelong at Zevran. The Elf was already stooping forward and he hardly had time to motion for help before Leliana was working at the opposite side. The work was almost done when there were footsteps in the next room and the warrior that looked down at them was as surprised as they were.
"Oi!" He shouted, his hand reaching for his blade.
It never made it. Ffion's pretty little knife sank in his neck and dropped him, and Zevran and Leliana stood in time to face off with the next foes. There weren't many and Leliana's 'teamwork' merely cemented Alistair's earlier comment on the ease of working together. Which seemed like ages ago rather than just a few weeks. This room was more of a cavern than the others. It didn't have the artfully crafted hallways and pretty idols, and there was no door here to lead further; it simply opened up and they found themselves in a tunnel that was eerily like the Deep Roads.
Ffion shared Morrigan's little shudder, clinging to her warning to the others: No reminiscing!! She led the way, ignoring the gaping doorway opposite. That only meant that her original thought had been correct and both halls emptied here. They had traveled maybe a hundred feet down the path and rounded a corner when they ran into one of the dragonlings. Ffion came to an abrupt halt, almost causing Alistair to stumble into her. The little creature cocked its head at them, blinking its bright red eyes, before going right back to scratching at the cavern walls, lapping at the liquid that seeped from the stone.
"Sorry," Ffion murmured as she skirted the dragonling, tugging Tilly along as well, "I've never seen a baby dragon in the flesh before."
"'Tis not too surprising," Morrigan was making a play at being helpful, but her inherent superiority couldn't be hidden, "Few people know how dragons can benefit us. Mother would have-"
"Not now, Morrigan," Alistair cut in, "We know what Flemeth would do to anything with a pulse. She could kill it with a look and-"
"Enough," Ffion said in a sigh, interrupting the argument before it could start.
Wynne spoke next, her voice amused in spite of the 'teacher tone.'
"Morrigan has a point," She offered, "You would not believe the number of apprentices that I caught trying to steal dragon blood, saliva, even horn from the stores to make love potions and other such... tinctures."
"Whaddya mean?" Oghren cut in, "Makin' it bigger t' please the ladies?"
"Surely 'tis a joke?" Morrigan was anything but impressed as Zevran laughed, clapping the Dwarf's shoulder.
The Elf's amber eyes danced as they flickered between the ever increasing arch in Ffion's brow, Alistair's reddening cheeks, and Oghren's broad grin. He wasn't able to help himself.
"Just ladies?" He inquired and this time Ffion's face went as bright red as Alistair's.
Oghren and Sten shifted uncomfortably while Wynne and Leliana laughed and even Morrigan smirked, though this was probably more at Alistair's embarrassment than anything else. She rolled her gold eyes a little and moved to stand with Ffion as they rounded the next corner.
Any further conversation was brought to an abrupt halt by Tilly. The Mabari froze, her head lifted and her ears perked forward. A growl rumbled in her throat and Ffion forgot her embarrassment as she lifted one hand and signaled the others to hold. It was a good thing, too. Further down the tunnel, from either another bend or a hidden room, a juvenile dragon appeared. It was smaller than the average storybook kind, but wasn't at all pleased to see them. Letting out a screech, flames spurting from its nostrils, it charged down the tunnel at them and Leliana was the first to act. Her arrow slowed the beast's charge and Ffion's knife landed in its other eye with a quick flick of her wrist. Morrigan's staff erupted in an icy blast and the dragon dropped dead about forty feet from them.
This time, Ffion didn't give anyone an opportunity to discuss the uses of dragon parts. She pressed on down the tunnel and it wound around another bend before splitting. The track to the left sloped down a little and the smell that seeped from it was musty and almost rancid, while the other was wide and much more welcoming. The Warden only hesitated for a moment before heading down the path again. It twisted and turned for a little while, leading further into the mountain, and then ending in a cavern. This wasn't huge, but it was big enough that they crowded a few paces from the entry and set about discussing what was to be done.
Tilly settled that for them and she growled softly as she trotted into the cavern, her head held high and her ears perked forward.
"Tilly!" Ffion hissed and didn't give a thought before hurrying after her hound.
"Ffion!?" Alistair said in that same instant and was on her heels.
Ffion was halfway across the room when she spotted the tripline and skidded to a halt. She let out a breath as Alistair collided with her and grabbed hold of her waist to keep them from falling to the floor. They both caught their balance and Ffion marveled at Tilly missing the tripline.
"Tilly, come now," She said firmly and quietly. The Mabari glanced at her, almost clearing the huge stalagmite that was in the middle of the room, hiding whatever was on the other side, "Come."
Tilly reluctantly turned back and trotted to her lady as Ffion slipped from Alistair's grasp and crouched to disarm the trip wire. She got it free in no time, but wasn't quick enough to avoid the apologetic lick that the Mabari gave her cheek. Unfortunately the damage had been done.
The warrior must have heard the skittering of the hound's claws and he came around the corner, shouting a warning and then dropping at a blast from Wynne's staff. But the others hidden behind the stalagmite had heard and advanced on the Wardens and Tilly. Wynne and Morrigan were quick in their defense and the three opposing mages were kept busy as Oghren, Sten, and Zevran pulled Alistair into the fray. It was roughly twenty against nine and this time the little dragonlings that were here did not stand idly by. Leliana was kept busy while the witch and enchanter both conjured storms that were quick to debilitate their foes. This gave Ffion and Zevran a perfect opportunity to slip behind and whittle the number down further. It was an intense fight, but the companions were able to gain a quick upper hand thanks to Wynne, Morrigan, and Leliana's efforts and when their human handlers were gone, the little dragonlings seemed to lose interest. Ffion distracted Tilly from the creatures with a bribe of treats and they moved further into the room, out of sight from the remaining ones.
There was a little makeshift classroom in an alcove of the cavern. Three long narrow tables were pushed against the rough stone wall and the lighted lamps cast a warm orange glow over them. Tomes that were thick and heavy covered one of the tables and the few that were open revealed yellowing parchment and worn spines. Two large, purple spotted eggs sat on the middle table and there were vials and beakers of all sizes on the third.
"Dragon eggs," Wynne said in surprise, touching the shell of one with gentle fingers, "They're raising dragons and I can't imagine why."
"Well, Morrigan did try to tell us their virtues, no?" Leliana offered, "Perhaps they know something we do not?"
"But it's nothing to do with the urn, so lets move on," Ffion left the eggs and tomes, heading to the path that led even further in.
They were back in a twisting tunnel and the dragonlings that populated this didn't trouble them. Unless of course there was a juvenile dragon, (drakes, according to Wynne) there to prompt them. But the company wasn't caught off-guard and soon they came to another split. Ffion paused, eying them both. Alistair was by her elbow and he frowned down at her.
"What do you think?" He questioned, liking the way her brows furrowed in concentration.
"I don't know," She answered slowly and glanced between the two options. One of the paths sloped up gradually while the other remained fairly level, "Genitivi said to travel up, yeah? And there's no handy smell this time, so... let's head up."
They went on, reaching a small room that held only more dragonlings and eggs, and then into another tunnel that still climbed gradually upwards. Here, the tunnel was quite short, only stretching about fifty yards before opening on another huge cavern. The air chilled again and it was clear that they were finally getting close to the summit... And of course, it wasn't going to be easy to continue.
Ahead there was a tall, broad shouldered man that was only a half-head shorter than Sten. His face was severe, the brows drawn together in a fierce frown as his black eyes glared at them. The warm, slightly brown note of his skin and intelligent eyes reminded Alistair sharply of Duncan, but the resemblance ended there. This man had none of his mentor's inherent compassion or wholeheartedness, and as he stepped forward, a handful of other cultists made their presence known as well. Four mages were loosely ringed behind the man and a half dozen warriors advanced so that the companions would have to walk through a gauntlet of sorts before pressing on.
"My men will keep their weapons sheathed," The big man said gruffly, "Proceed, I must have a word with you."
Ffion frowned with a matching intensity and glanced sidelong at Alistair as he stepped next to her. He gave her a shrug, but it was Morrigan who spoke.
"We do not have a choice, Ffion. I suppose we take a chance."
"I guess we have to," The Warden agreed quietly and started forward.
She was painfully aware of the warriors closing ranks behind them and blocking any escape, but there was nothing to be done about that. Besides the big man was folding his arms across his chest and meeting Ffion's gaze in an intimidating glare. The light here came from a warming fire off to the left, a few scattered torches, and a number of openings in the cavern ceiling, and this bounced off the man's red steel armor and made it glitter menacingly. He gave no command for them to drop their weapons and none of the company bothered with even a show at potential compromise by sheathing them.
"You have been ransacking our caverns, causing us trouble, and disturbing the peace that we have held here for years," He said bluntly, "You have a reason for this I trust?"
Ffion bristled at the man's superior tone and felt all of her previous annoyances come rushing back. The gall of these people! Imprisoning a scholar for simply asking questions, giving them a run-about on said scholar. And now accusing them of causing trouble when Ffion would have been all for compromise had it been considered.
"We've been asking questions since we got here," She replied sharply, "And we have had no answers. None of your people here are willing to talk to us. Instead they attack and we have been fully within our right to defend ourselves. I really don't feel I have to explain in anymore detail than that."
"Questions," He sneered and the anger in his eyes deepened, if that was possible, "Always people asking questions, sticking their noses where they don't belong and stirring up trouble. I will not have it here. My family has been protecting Andraste and this temple for generations and I will not let it end on my watch."
Ffion found herself exchanging glances with both Alistair and Zevran before looking back at the man.
"Protecting Andraste?" She repeated slowly and heard the disbelief in her tone, "You mean she's here, in this cavern?"
The man before them drew himself upright and eyed them with such iciness he rivaled Morrigan on her worst days.
"You really know nothing," He scoffed and then his voice strengthened and his gaze thawed as it went to the other extreme. His face was practically burning with passion as he went on, "Andraste is not dead, she has been reborn! She's more glorious than ever before and you will pay for killing and tormenting her children."
Zevran cocked his head and frowned at the man.
"Children? You mean the dragonlings, yes?"
"You think this Andraste was reborn as a dragon?" Sten added and his tone was insultingly unconvinced.
"We don't think, we know!" The man's eyes blazed and it was quite clear just how unbalanced he was. His face tinted red with emotion as he balled his hands into fists and took a half step forward, "She is stronger than ever and we will not allow anyone to threaten her!"
Ffion heard the companions settling into fighting stances and Wynne and Morrigan both were altering the atmosphere around them, ready to go on the defensive the instant it was needed. She arched her brows at the mad man before her and felt the old mischief starting to take hold. She couldn't help but recall the number of times she had purposefully played dumb to annoy her brother and Gilmore, and then later the various guests of her mother and father that just rubbed her the wrong way. And now she couldn't stop herself from falling into the old pattern.
"Let me see if I have this right," She said slowly and put on a faux thoughtful expression, "Your family has been protecting Andraste's temple and ashes for generations here, based out of Haven. And one day you decided that she's not really dead," The Warden ignored Wynne's soft, admonishing call of her name and pushed further, watching the man's face get more and more purple, "So then you had to figure out what she would be reborn as and you pick a dragon, of all things, and start to breed the damn things here in this cavern to, what? Please the almighty mother? Don't you think that's a little insulting to a woman who sacrificed her life thinking only of how to help the less fortunate? Or maybe you actually have the gall to believe that the Maker, who I'm pretty sure is supposed to be impartial to all his worshipers, has singled you out for this great calling and deemed you crazy enough to be worthy? Either way, Andraste died that day on that pillar and you're making a mockery of her sacrifice and damning yourself and those ignorant enough to follow you to everlasting flames."
Sten moved with blinding speed as Alistair pushed Ffion from the man's warpath. The Qunari's broadsword crashed against the enormous battleaxe and the fight was on. Leliana and Morrigan focused on the four mages while Wynne surrounded them with a shield of energy and the others kept the melee fighters busy. This fight was not as easy as the others and the cultists here were better taught then those that were in the tunnels. Sten was kept busy with the leader and the mages came very close to gaining the upper hand even as the other warriors were steadily beaten back. Oghren was finally able to turn on the leader to help Sten, and the Wardens, with Zevran and Tilly, were quick to take on the last three.
That was when it happened. Leliana took a bolt of energy she wasn't quick enough to dodge and she fell back with a cry of pain. Morrigan floundered on her own and even as Ffion turned to throw one of her knives to help, Wynne stepped forward. She drew such power to herself that it was almost as if she was sucking the air from the cavern and when she released it, it was incredible. The force shot in the mages' direction, but it made the whole cavern shake, sending snow tumbling in from the openings above them. The mages slammed into the far wall, their staffs flying in different directions, and when they landed they didn't move. The ground rocked just enough to unbalance everyone and send Sten's sword through the belly of the man. He dropped, gurgling once or twice, and then went still. Zevran took out the last two and it was Alistair who caught Wynne as she slumped, unconscious, when the spell's power dispersed.
There was a flurry of activity as everyone got their bearings again. Ffion bounced around between all of them, checking to make sure no one was seriously hurt, and ordering Alistair to make Wynne comfortable by the fire. The enchanter was very pale and shivering with the effects of her spell. If not for those shudders and the gentle rise and fall of her chest, they would have thought she was dead. Morrigan rifled through her pack, coming up with a few potions that were sure to get Wynne back on her feet and she handed these to Ffion as Alistair gently propped the enchanter up. It took them a bit before they could get anything down her throat and she was coughing, her eyelids fluttering, when they did. Her pale blue eyes were hazy and though she smiled up at them a little, she didn't try to talk.
Ffion's gaze met Alistair's over the enchanter's white head and the Warden was close enough to see that there were flecks of darker brown in the ex-Templar's honey colored eyes. She shook herself mentally and got back on track.
"She'll have to stay here," She said softly.
"No," Wynne was breathless, but she struggled to sit up and free herself of Alistair's arms, "No... I'm - I am quite... all right. Don't - oh!"
She sank back with a small gasp and had to close her eyes again to shut out the wild spinning of the cavern. Her face was even paler and though she wasn't in pain, it was clear that she had no energy left for the rest of this journey.
"It's all right, Wynne," Ffion soothed, reaching out to brush the strands of hair from the enchanter's face, "This was the last fight, we just need the ashes now. Alistair will stay here with you and-"
"No," Alistair's answer was automatic and firm. He looked at Ffion steadily and the Warden wondered why her cheeks flushed, hating that they did, "No, I won't stay behind while you go off alone. I want to go with you."
"I'm not going alone," She replied, annoyed. She let her frustration win out over her embarrassment and went on, "Wynne can't finish right now and she can't stay alone. It's better this way; it's probably what we should have done in the Deep Roads. Ferelden needs the Grey Wardens to end the Blight, yeah? So, we'll split up to make sure that happens. You'll stay here and keep Wynne safe with Morrigan and Oghren. Leliana would never forgive me if I went on to Andraste's temple without her and Zevran and Sten are-"
"Intelligent enough to know a hoax when we see one," Sten interrupted in all seriousness, though he made the rest chuckle.
Alistair still looked at Ffion and he shook his head at her as Wynne settled comfortably into his arms, relieved to have his support.
"I don't like staying behind while you put yourself in danger," He said stubbornly, "We can figure this out differently."
Ffion was already standing, making sure her weapons were where she wanted them, and then she met the ex-Templar's gaze. She spread her hands and gave him a never-you-mind shrug.
"There's nothing to discuss," She answered, "And we won't be long. You can wait here and stew, and we'll argue about it when I get back."
Alistair couldn't help the smile that curved his mouth at her dismissive, almost self-deprecating, words and his eyes danced.
"You do realize that you're only leaving me with two before I have to chase after you myself?" He countered and was rewarded when her grey eyes lit and she grinned what he truly believed was his grin.
"Faith, Alistair, faith," She chided and patted Tilly's broad head when the Mabari nudged her, "We'll be back soon."
"It's as lovely Leliana says: teamwork," Zevran added brightly, "Trust in our dove, Chirpy, it has worked in our favor so far."
With those parting words, Ffion turned to lead her companions out of the cavern. Oghren watched them go for a moment and then trailed behind, catching up with the Warden.
"Lis'en, boss," He said gruffly, "I agree wi' P.T. I wanna go along wi' yeh."
Ffion smiled at him, touched by his concern and knowing he would be the first to adamantly deny he cared. She glanced at the warming fire where Alistair and Wynne were still settled and saw that Morrigan was making her way to the bodies of the mages.
"I need you to stay here, Oghren," She answered, her voice both firm and gentle, "Wynne can't be left on her own, and Alistair and Morrigan would start quarreling and probably kill each other if they didn't have a buffer. Besides, Wynne likes ale and beer. Maybe your brew will help her out."
She beamed at this sudden revelation and could feel the dimple in her cheek. It was clear that Oghren liked this idea and he gave her a nod. His grin was more than a little wicked as his green eyes lit up.
"An' maybe I can finally gain some groun' wi' her, eh?"
Ffion shook her head a little, amused, and Zevran spoke first.
"You will need more time than we could give you for that, yes? I wish you luck, my smelly friend."
"We won't be long, Oghren," Ffion added, "Take care of them for me."
The Dwarf gave her a jaunty salute and they departed while he began searching through the bodies of the warriors.
Alistair was watching them leave, wishing he knew what Oghren had said to make Ffion light up so brilliantly. His eyes lingered on the swing of her hips and his thoughts traveled back to the night at Orzammar. He could still smell the ale that had made her so wonderfully open and affectionate; he felt the grip of her small fingers against his skin and in his clothes, and the heat where her slight body had been pressed to his. But most clearly of all was the way she hadn't blinked as one of her hands cupped the back of his head and pulled his mouth to hers when she had given him that excruciatingly short kiss. He remembered the velvet softness of her lips and the herbal, rather earthy smell of her hair wash, and how easy he would have found it to kiss her back with a will; pushing her onto the bed and then... And then Wynne was speaking to him and it took a hell of an effort to pull himself back to the present.
"You are... fond of her... aren't you?" The enchanter's voice was low, slowing regaining some of its strength.
"Huh?" Alistair was still partially lost in his thoughts and when he realized how intently Wynne had been looking at him, he flushed bright red and surreptitiously glanced at Morrigan and Oghren. Neither one was paying attention. The witch was rifling through the mages' bodies, while Oghren was still busy with the warriors'. The ex-Templar's honey eyes met Wynne's and he added, "Well, yeah, I mean we're the last two Wardens in Ferelden and if we didn't have each other, it'd be a bloody disaster."
"That's not what... I meant, Alistair," Wynne's voice was still stronger and her piercing blue eyes did not missing how carefully he answered her, "I think it is wonderful... but be careful... You need to-"
She broke off as a cough rumbled through her chest and made her wince with each sharp exhalation. Alistair's hands tightened on her and he was about to call Morrigan over when the enchanter wordlessly waved that idea aside.
"Don't try to talk, Wynne," He said to her soothingly, "If it takes so much effort, just save it for something really important. Just rest easy knowing that I admire and respect Ffion and am smart enough to realize that this, right now, is all I can hope to have with her."
But Wynne's pale blue eyes landed on his with a gleam in them that told him just how thin the ice he stood on really was.