Gauntlets Are NOT for the Faint of Heart
The summit was freezing, the air thin, and it was very slow going as Ffion and her companions made their way across to the next mount. There were some remnants of a path here and it was clear that this had once been quite the temple and fortress. Along both sides of the path, under the snow and ice, they could make out what had once been parapets and the ruins of guard towers. Luckily for them, the sun was still shining in the sky, though it had started sinking behind the peaks off to their left. It made the snow glitter like diamonds and the view was incredible. The Frostbacks rose up stark against the clear blue sky, their snowy peaks brilliant in the setting sun. Far below, they could see where the rock cliffs gave way to the dark, lush green of the late summer growth and every now and then the sunlight sparkled off curling streams and rivers. Back to the south, clouds streaked across the sky and looked to be building up with a will and Ffion's only thought was: Figures! Here, the weather had been beautiful while they were traipsing through those tunnels and now that they might be traveling back toward Redcliffe within a few hours, the Frostbacks decided enough was enough.
Tilly was nervous, pressing close to Ffion as the path sloped rather steeply down into a broad crevice. It was more of a slide at that point than a walk and Ffion was wondering how they'd manage to climb back up when they heard the swish of wings in the air and smelled an acrid smoke. A huge shadow swooped across the snow and Sten moved quickly, pulling Ffion and Leliana toward an outcropping of rocks, and ducking behind them. Zevran and Tilly were next and they all dropped into a crouch, Ffion tugging her hound beside her, and watched nervously as the dragon soared above them. It was huge, roughly six or seven times bigger than the drakes, and its horns gleamed in the dying sunlight. The undersides of its wings were visible as it rode the air draft, making a wide turn, and settling on the mountainside above and slightly behind them. Zevran cautiously turned his body to keep an eye on it and saw with relief that it had returned to its lair. He could still see the tips of its horns and the purple-black of its back, but it was clearly more interested in sleeping than hunting.
Taking the opportunity presented, he waved the others forward and they slipped from their hiding place, hurrying across the snow and ice as best they could, and keeping close to what remained of the parapets. They reached the other side of the crevice safely and scrambled up the slight incline to the where the sun revealed a small alcove in the mountainside. Hidden within this was a thick wooden door that had been carved with Andraste's flame and what looked like little flowers with vines interweaving their way through everything.
"Andraste's grace," Leliana murmured, one hand gently tracing the elegant lines of the flowers. Zevran crouched to pick the lock when the handle didn't budge and the Orlesian seemed not to notice as she went on, "My mother always loved these flowers. She had a perfume made from them one year and I still remember the way the scent trailed after her like a veil. They are beautiful little flowers."
"The only thing I smell is that dragon," Sten cut in gruffly, "Let us hope that she doesn't decide to investigate our scent."
Leliana sent him an annoyed look at how obviously he had missed her point, but Zevran was successful with the door and it sprang inward, discouraging any arguments. They pushed it open further and stepped into a room that was dim even with the torches lining the walls. There were long benches set up like pews on either side of the room and in the corners were idols of Andraste that serenely observed the goings-on of this long abandoned place. Spiders had taken advantage and their silky webs were strung across the ceiling and abounded above the heads of all four Andrastes.
The companions started forward slowly, Leliana's face aglow with the peace and meaning of this place, and a warrior seemed to suddenly materialize at the door ahead of them. Tilly growled softly and Zevran and Sten both reached for their weapons, but Ffion held up one hand as Leliana shook her head.
"There is no trouble here," The Orlesian said softly, not looking away from the warrior, "Our only enemy now is our own hearts."
She approached the warrior and Ffion didn't think twice about trailing after her. She felt Sten and Zevran reluctantly fall behind her and Tilly was, as always, her shadow. The warrior was tall, shimmering in the torchlight, and his silverite armor was emitting its own light. His helm hid the finer features of his face, but they could clearly see his rich, dark brown beard, and the piercing eyes were a brilliant green. He had a huge mace slung over his back, but he made no move to grab it as they halted in front of him. The green eyes studied each of them in turn and seemed to hone in on all the deep, dark secrets that each one was striving to keep hidden. Being this close, they could see how the warrior resembled the mad man quite alarmingly and it made Ffion stiffen. The warrior sensed this and he fixed his attention on her.
"There is no need to fret," He said and his deep voice seemed to dispense peace and goodwill with just the sound of it, "I have no desire to attack you and watching you as I have done tells me that you have no wish for more fighting. Alas, would that the others had seen this, but they had been led astray for too long."
"Yes, we all realized that the others were a slight bit touched in the head," Zevran's tone wasn't as biting as it usually was and this was as much a surprise to him as the rest.
"We must not grudge them their passion for Andraste and her Maker," The warrior replied, "Pity the poor souls that have been misled, but do not be angry with them. I am the Guardian, in place here for centuries to watch over Andraste's temple. It was my duty in life as her disciple and it is now my duty in death to do the same. I have witnessed the comings and goings of numerous pilgrims, the true-hearted and the fortune seekers; all have come and gone over the passing of years. But this sect...Unfortunate that they have had so much influence for so long," He shook his head, at a loss, and then looked back at Ffion, "You told the leader that Andraste died that day and he was making a mockery of her sacrifice which was brutal, but true. Our Andraste has gone to the Maker's side; she will not return. The dragon is a fearsome creature, and they must have seen her as an alternative to the absent Maker and his silent Andraste. A true believer would not require such audacious displays of power."
Ffion found herself much more honest than usual and she spread her hands, shrugging.
"We had no idea what we were getting involved with," She replied, "I only came up here to see if there was any truth to what Isolde told us. And now that I've found Genitivi and seen you... I don't know what to think anymore. I just want to help Eamon."
"A more truthful answer I could not hope to hear," The Guardian was almost smiling at her and the light in his green eyes was stronger now, "You have taken the necessary steps, acting solely on faith, and that is what you must have for what comes next. Behind this door is the Gauntlet. Many a pilgrim has failed here, not trusting to the faith that brought him to me. I cannot divulge details, of course, you must be free of any foreknowledge and simply... believe. Only then will you reach our Andraste's ashes and fulfill your heart's quest."
Ffion felt trepidation go through her and she eyed the door behind him nervously. Sten shifted with impatience and she spoke quickly before the Qunari could cut in.
"Well, better now than never," She said and took a step forward.
The Guardian didn't move and the Warden frowned up at him. He held up one gloved hand and glanced between each of them once more.
"There is one last thing I must ask of you," He said and his deep voice was stern, "I see suffering in your lives: your suffering and the sufferings of others. You, Leliana the bard, should know better than any of the others that the Maker spoke only to Andraste. Your vision was not what you claim. You saw that this made you special, different from your fellow brothers and sisters in the faith. It allowed you to have the distinction that you always craved."
Leliana's small face was bright red and her blue eyes flashed. Her hands clenched into fists and she refused to look away from the Guardian.
"That is a lie!" She spat, her accent a little more pronounced as she got angry, "I did have a vision, the Maker spoke to me, and I am here to do as he asked. You have no right to disregard what I saw simply because of your own skewed view."
"I am merely imparting what I have seen," The Guardian was unperturbed and he looked at Sten now, "And you, Sten of the Beresaad, brave and strong in your post as vanguard of your people. Do you feel grief over the family that was slaughtered? Do you feel you have failed your noble people by allowing the world to see them in such a light?"
Ffion blinked up at the Qunari who hardly flinched at the questions. A muscle clenched in his jaw and his violet eyes were a little distant, and when it was clear these words struck closer to home than even he realized, the Warden spoke up.
"He never claims not to have failed," She said sharply and felt Sten's surprised glance, "And if he feels grief or disappointment, well, doesn't that just make him more real?"
The Guardian was looking at her now and the Warden felt her heart sink a little before he even spoke. She already knew what he was going to say.
"And what of you, Warden Ffion?" He quizzed, "You and your fellow Warden wear your regrets more openly than the others. He regrets not saving his mentor, not blocking the killing blow and you? You conceal your heritage and the pain inflicted that night. Do you do so because you regret leaving your mother and father to die? Or is it perhaps a punishment for not doing more?"
The blood drained from Ffion's face and she heard Oriana's scream echoing through her head more clearly than she had for some time. She let the pain and heartache eat at her for a moment and then felt it transform into anger with an alarming speed. She straightened her shoulders, ignoring Leliana's pitying look and Zevran's steady, knowing gaze.
"Of course I regret that," She snapped, "I could have done more. I - I left them to face that bastard on their own and saved my own neck. Does that answer your question? Or would it be better to collapse into a heap on the floor and start weeping hysterically?"
"It answers my question," The Guardian spoke with such gentleness that Ffion found tears springing to her eyes, "You cannot begin to heal while you hold to this helpless thought."
The Warden blinked hard and shook her head, thinking fleetingly that it was a stroke of brilliance, leaving Alistair behind. She wouldn't have been able to handle his shocked face and then gentle questions.
"Perhaps I don't deserve to heal," She replied and wondered where that had come from. The pain was a yawning chasm within her and she was dangerously close to becoming that hysterical heap and this dawning realization was only making matters worse.
Sten stepped in then, repaying her act of kindness with one of his one.
"Do not be so foolish as to wish for that, kadan," He said softly and ignored Zevran's surprised look at the endearment, "Cherish their memory always, but allow the pain of their dying to cease so you are not consumed."
Ffion was quite obviously torn between her anger and tears, and this time Zevran came to her rescue. He shrugged away the shock that Sten's softening had brought about and stepped forward a little.
"I suppose it is last but certainly not least, yes?" He said and drew the Guardian's attention, "Come, take your shot, and try to reduce me to a mass while our dove recovers."
"Glibness only protects one for so long, does it not, Zevran Arainai?" The Guardian seemed more than happy to oblige the Elf, "You have been a killer for many years. Tell me, do you regret any of the lives you have cut short? Or is it only one that haunts you? You took the life of that young-"
"Target struck," None of them had ever heard Zevran's voice so cold and he waved away the Guardian's question. His amber eyes were hard with none of their usual charm and he inclined his head to the Guardian, "You are quite good, yes? Naturally I regret that one, but I will not discuss it further. You have your answer."
"Indeed I have," The Guardian looked as though he was going to continue, but Zevran's expression seemed to make him think otherwise. He glanced at Ffion once more and the Warden was more than composed enough to meet his gaze squarely, "You have all been honest with me, if not open. Even you, Leliana. You truly believe you have been singled out and I will not condemn you for this. The way forward is open, step in faith."
The door behind him swung inward and as he stepped to one side, he disappeared as though he had never been there. Ffion blinked and felt the others looking at her, waiting for her word. Zevran's gaze was the most piercing and she ignored him, not wanting to go into anymore detail than what was needed. Now was not the time, though she herself was bursting with curiousity and it was Sten who made the decision here.
"Enough of this," His voice was back to its usual deep tones, but his eyes were much kinder when they landed on the Warden, "Let us press on and see if the Arlessa was right."
Ffion gave him a nod of thanks and stepped forward into the long broad hall. She felt a peculiar shakiness in her limbs and was more than a little exhausted by the force of the emotions that had swept through her. All this time she had done her best to bury her head into the sand and pretend that the gravity of what had happened to her family would not crush her. And then she heard those startling words from her own lips and she wondered how much truth was behind them. She had certainly believed them on that terrible, nightmare trip to Ostagar, but when Duncan had given her this chance and she had gotten to know Alistair, she started to back away from that. Indeed, she had grown so accustomed to hiding her heritage from the others that she had even, Maker forgive me! begun to forget herself.
But now, they were in this gloomy hall and more spirits were appearing. There were four that lined each wall, standing before more idols of Andraste and the flickering torchlight revealed their transparency. They were eerily beautiful and Ffion stepped toward the closest one on their left before anyone could stop her. Tilly wasn't alarmed by their presence and her lady took this as a good thing, and as they came closer a voice began speaking. It was clearly coming from the spirit they approached and his voice was rasping, echoing throughout the chamber.
"... cruel counterpart; from love she grows, till love lies slain. Of what do I speak?"
The spirit fell silent again, staring steadily at Ffion as she studied him in surprise. His helm was gleaming, the horns on either side curving forward and giving him a menacing look. He stood tall and straight, his head held high and the white beard brushing the top of his breastplate.
"So we must answer riddles?" Sten said and Ffion held up one hand in alarm, wondering what would happen if the specter thought that might be their answer.
But he remained still, his eyes on Ffion only. She gave the Qunari a nod and Leliana deemed it safe to speak then.
"This is General Maferath, Andraste's mortal husband," She spoke quietly, awe in each of those words. Her blue eyes went around the room as she studied each of the spirits, "They will all be tied to Andraste in some way. That makes this quite simple, no?"
The Warden didn't look away from the general and instead parted her lips slowly.
"Is it... May I hear the riddle again, please?" She asked cautiously, almost crossing her fingers.
He inclined his head and repeated,
"A poison of the soul, passion's cruel counterpart; from love she grows, till love lies slain. Of what do I speak?"
Ffion frowned, deep in thought. She had always enjoyed riddles as a child and she remembered how Gilmore used to spend hours trying to come up with something that would stump her. First Gilmore and then Oriana, who had loved crafting the riddles as well. From love she grows, till love lies slain... That followed immediately after thoughts of Oriana and Ffion beamed, glancing up at the general again.
"Jealousy," She answered promptly, knowing that even if she wasn't right, she had come damn close. Hadn't she been horribly jealous when Oriana first came to their family, diverting her hero-worshiped Fergus' attention from her? And all of this stemmed from love for her brother, which grew to encompass her sister-in-law and nephew...
"Yes," The spirit's voice had softened and it was obvious he felt shame even all these years after death had claimed him, "Jealousy drove me to betrayal. I was the greatest general of the Alamarri... but beside her, I was nothing. Hundreds fell before her on bended knee. They loved her as did the Maker... I loved her, too, but what man can compare with a god?"
He faded away as he spoke and the little beam of light he became shot through the set of double doors at the other end of the room. Thrilled with her success, Ffion moved to the next spirit. This one was a woman with a strikingly handsome face and bright red hair. Her Tevinter robes were immaculate as they shone in the light and her arrogance was on display when she spoke in a strong voice.
"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The debt of blood must be paid in full. Of what do I speak?"
Leliana had the answer almost instantly.
"It is vengeance, Ffion," She said quietly, "I think I know that well enough, no?"
Ffion hesitated only a fraction of a second before nodding and repeating the Orlesian's answer.
"Indeed," The woman said, "My husband Hessarian would have chosen a quick death for Andraste. I made him swear that she would die publicly with her war leaders, that all would know the Imperium's strength. I am justice. I am vengeance. Blood can only be repaid in blood."
She disappeared in the same manner of the general and the next riddle came from a tall, dark haired Chantry brother.
"No man has seen it, but all men know it. Lighter than air, shaper than any sword. Comes from nothing, but would fell the strongest armies. Of what do I speak?"
Ffion took her time again, still not sure what would happen if she guessed wrong. She wracked her brain, recalling all the history lessons she should have paid more attention to. Andraste's armies had advanced and the Tevinters were taken out, but what had been the catch? She heard Tilly whine softly and felt the Mabari's tongue rake across her hand and for whatever reason that answered her question.
"Hunger," She said uncertainly, waiting with bated breath.
"Yes, hunger was the weapon used against the wicked men of the Imperium. The Maker kindled the sun's flame, scorching the land. Their crops failed, and their armies could not march. Then he opened the heavens and bade the waters flow and washed away their filth. I am Cathaire, disciple of Andraste and commander of her armies. I saw these things done and knew the Maker smiled upon us."
The next was a pleasant looking woman who had clearly been a peasant in her mortal life.
"The smallest lark could carry it, while a strong man might not. Of what do I speak?"
"A tune," Leliana and Ffion answered this in unison and the spirit smiled.
"Yes, I was Andraste's dearest friend in childhood and always we would sing. She celebrated the beauty of life and all who heard her would be filled with joy. They say the Maker himself was moved by Andraste's song and then she sang no more of simple things."
She disappeared and the party moved to the opposite side of the hall to finish this task.
"Perhaps Sten and I should merely wait by the door, yes?" Zevran questioned dryly, his amber eyes back to their customary dancing.
"You have four more chances and remember what I told Alistair? Faith," Ffion grinned at him, "You're not getting out of this."
This one was the specter of an Elf and even Zevran couldn't feign indifference when he began speaking in a cultured voice.
"I am neither a guest nor a trespasser be; in this place I belong that belongs also to me. Of what do I speak?"
There was a silence as they all considered this and then Zevran's voice said firmly,
Ffion glanced back at him with arched brows and he waved for her to go on. Shrugging, she repeated his answer to the Elf, who nodded.
"It was my dream for my people to have a home of their own, where we would have no masters but ourselves. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and thus we followed Andraste, against the Imperium. But she was betrayed and so were we."
The Warden turned about completely to look at Zevran with a small smile as the spirit disappeared.
"See?" She said as they continued down the line, "Faith and teamwork, all we need."
The Elf chuckled, pleased to see that she was back to herself and retreating from whatever chasm the Guardian had opened right in front of her. He had hated to see it and didn't want to see it again. He was ready with a quick response, but the riddler was first.
"The bones of the world stretch towards the sky's embrace. Veiled in white, like a bride greeting her groom. Of what do I speak?" He watched the Warden steadily, his Chantry robes shining with their own light.
This time it was Sten's turn.
"He speaks of mountains, Ffion," The Qunari said, "We have seen enough of them lately to know this."
Once more, the Warden was surprised, but Leliana nodded and when she answered the riddle, she found he was right.
"Yes, I carried Andraste's ashes out of Tevinter into the mountains to the east where she could forever gaze into her Maker's sky. No more fitting a tomb than this could we find."
"Debatable," Sten muttered, killing whatever grace he had earned with a correct answer.
But the spirit was gone and the next was the Archon Hessarian, according to Leliana. He wore his formal robes and his gaze was incredibly sad for one coming from a spirit.
"She wields the broken sword and separates true kings from tyrants. Of what do I speak?"
"Mercy," Zevran's voice joined Leliana's and they exchanged knowing glances as Ffion repeated this and the spirit nodded.
"I could not bear the sight of Andraste's suffering and mercy bade me end her life. I am the penitent sinner who shows compassion as he hopes compassion may be shown to him."
The last spirit was an older woman, heavier set, with a face that had been lined by both worry and smiles alike. She also had the look of a peasant about her but when she spoke, her gentle voice told them that she had been a noble, loving woman.
"Echoes from a shadow realm, whispers of things yet to come. Thought's strange sister dwells in night, is swept away by dawning light. Of what do I speak?"
Ffion hardly thought about that one and was only half sure when the answer came to her lips.
"Dreams," She said quietly and then blinked up at the spirit, wondering if she had made a mistake.
"Yes," The voice softened and her gaze was eternally sad, "A dream came upon me as my daughter slumbered beneath my heart. It told of her life and her betrayal and... death. I am sorrow and regret. I am a mother weeping bitter tears for a daughter she could not save."
Zevran saw the chasm a little more clearly in Ffion's face as the spirit disappeared and the doors swung open. And when she turned about to head that way, it was suddenly yawning before him. She let out a sharp gasp, her eyes lighting with wonder as she darted forward into the shadows of the next room, Tilly on her heels. The Elf called her name in alarm, starting after her, but Sten was quick to stop him. The Qunari also held Leliana back, his eyes sharp to pick up on movement in that next room, and he was sure he was only one to hear the softly spoken Papa.
"No, hold," The Qunari said quietly, "This is a task for her alone. We can't help her here."
Ffion's eyes smarted with hot tears as she raced into the next room. Her father stood before her as a shimmering spirit which made this so much harder, knowing that he was indeed dead and gone. But for right now, he was smiling at her with his old tenderness and though he cocked his head at her in the way that was so painfully familiar, he didn't open his arms. They both were well aware that he wasn't substantial enough for the embrace this occasion called for and that twisted the knife in Ffion's heart.
"Hello, my dear," The sound of his voice triggered more tears and then he went on, "Your mother and I are so proud of you, but, my girl, you can't grieve forever. You know that we are gone and all of your dreams and wishes, no matter how strong you feel them, will not bring us back."
Ffion stifled a sob, wanting to throw her arms around her father's neck and let him hold her as he used to when she was upset, and the fact that she couldn't was horrible.
"Please, Papa, I can't... I can't. I miss you, both of you... and I don't - can't let you go yet," She answered and heard how shaky her control was.
"You must, Ffion," His blue-grey eyes were tender and his voice was firm without losing its loving undertones. One hand reached out to brush her cheek and though he wasn't solid, she could feel a gentle breath creep across her skin as he touched her, "Take the pain and the guilt, acknowledge it and let it go. It is time."
She shook her head, putting her hand up to press his palm to her cheek, and crying in earnest when she couldn't.
"Not yet," She choked, "Please, not yet. Don't leave me yet, Papa."
"Oh, Pup," And his own voice cracked as her resolve broke at the endearment and she let out an audible sob, "You must stay strong and never forget us as we were. Don't let Howe get the best of you; and remember a father and mother who adored you and wanted nothing more than to see their children have a happy future. Goodbye, my dearest Pup and sweetest girl... I love you."
There was a clink of something hitting the floor and Bryce Cousland was gone. Ffion's eyes blurred with tears and it took her a moment to catch her breath and stifle the sobs again. Tilly was whining, not liking that she couldn't defend her lady from this pain. The Warden touched her head and let her knees get weak. She sank to a crouch, not giving the others waiting behind her a thought as she pressed her face into Tilly's fur. Once again, she picked up the familiar tobacco and leather scents and was grateful that the dim light gleamed on what had fallen to the floor; she desperately needed the distraction. She wiped the tears from her cheeks and reached out to pick up the object. It was a small medallion strung on a thin silver chain and as she studied the smooth, almost pearl colored surface, she spotted a brief glimpse of familiar faces that were too far away to see clearly. She could make out her father's eyes, her mother's smile, Oren's mischievous grin, and Oriana's pretty heart-shaped face with the dimpling smile that had become so dear to her. She waited to catch Fergus' dancing gaze or the grin his son had inherited, but it never came. Somehow this strengthened her resolve again and she found herself getting to her feet, knocking the last of the tears away and motioning to the others without looking at them. The absence of Fergus in the medallion was a good thing, she was sure. It meant she had something to hope for, to cling to, and if her brother was still alive then... she would be the happiest girl in the world. It meant that not everything had been lost and the Couslands stood a better chance than before at pulling through this tragedy.
Her companions approached cautiously and Ffion once more felt her grief evolving into anger. She relapsed into pushing herself as she had in the Deep Roads, telling herself that she would think about it later, that now was not the time. And though last time it had ended with a drunken, completely lost night and what would have been a hell of a hangover without Leliana, she shoved that aside, too. The Orlesian was looking at her pityingly once more, her lips parting to ask a question, and Ffion cut her short.
"It's over," She said abruptly and heard the hoarseness in her voice, "And there's nothing to discuss. Let's move on."
She had taken in her surroundings for the first time and saw that they were standing in a small entry with a short section of wall blocking the rest of the room from their view. There were doorways leading further on either side of the wall and the light was even poorer here so that when they rounded the corner and headed for the next set of doors, the specters that popped up to fight them were hardly visible. It was only when the spirits moved that they could see what they were up against. Each of them had a spirit of themselves to fight and it wasn't as easy as they would have believed. They were so evenly matched and the only thing that seemed to help Ffion was the fact that she let her anger get the best of her and attacked her image as though it was Howe she was battling. She beat the spirit back and finally took it out with a swing of blades, loping the head from the specter and turning to take out the Tilly spirit that was trying to lock onto her Tilly's neck. One of her knives was flipped into her palm as she heard Sten curse in his own tongue, but she was too late. The Qunari was ramming his sword into the spirit's belly and Leliana's image was taken out a moment later. The room was clear and the next set of doors popped open. Ffion was feeling something akin to bloodlust and she would have been thrilled had she found something else she could have attacked with her swords. Zevran must have read this in her expression for he was the one that led them into the next room.
It was a little smaller than the previous one, circular in shape, and there was a ledge that ran along both walls, a full flagstone's width. Framing the gaping chasm that was directly between them and the next doorway were twelve slightly raised platforms that were added to the ledge almost as an afterthought, but that couldn't possibly be. It seemed that nothing Andraste's disciples created were afterthoughts. More idols of Andraste decorated the curving walls and Ffion had to gaze at this in utter dismay before steeling herself to the task at hand. There was an odd flagstone that was directly ahead, out of place as it stood proud from the rest, with spike-like arms that curled upwards from each corner of the stone. And suddenly this made a little more sense to the Warden.
"Tilly, sit," She said firmly, handing the Mabari a thick slice of jerky, "And stay right there."
She stepped forward and stood in the middle of that odd flagstone.
"Ffion, what are you-"
"The Guardian said believe," She interrupted Leliana without a thought and she studied the rest of the raised flagstones that extended almost questioningly, "So that's what we'll do. This is the test of utter faith... for all of us. There has to be some way of..." Her voice trailed off and she was fixed on the stones to her left, "Sten, Zevran, there was a little gleam of light just then. It's the, let's see... the third and last platforms. Go and stand on them and let's see what happens."
They did as she asked and as they stood on the middle of the stones, the shadowy image of another oddly carved flagstone appeared ahead of Ffion. She frowned, glancing down the line of platforms where Sten and Zevran were standing and then studying the other side, never doubting that whatever spirit here would show her the correct stone. Sure enough there was another gleam of light and the Warden felt surer of herself.
"Leliana, the second one, please," She said and after the Orlesian did so, she took a deep breath and stepped onto the stone that appeared in front of her, trying desperately to hold to the belief that it would stay substantial enough for her weight. It wasn't quite solid looking, but she didn't step through it and once more, she went through her practice of studying the ring of platforms, refusing to look down into the bottomless chasm beneath her, where the frigid air was drifting up in a cloud of white. And again, she was rewarded with a quick gleam as the light beneath Sten's faded from barely there to nonexistent, "Sten, the fourth one on the right."
"You don't think that-"
"I'm not going to think about it," She interrupted quickly, "This will work. I know you don't believe in Andraste so just... have some faith in me instead."
The Qunari studied her a moment longer and then inclined his head, liking that answer. He stepped from his platform, all of them watching the stone Ffion was standing on and letting out relieved breaths as it remained solid for her. When he reached the other side and stood on the fourth stone, there was a faint outline ahead of her that told her she was on the right track. This time Leliana's stone went dark and the first platform to the left flashed for a split second. The Warden sent her to it and tried fiercely to ignore the way her own flagstone was suddenly nothing more than an outline beneath her feet. But the one ahead of her was ready and even as Zevran said her name, she was stepping onto it and sending him a wan smile. She was standing much closer to him than she thought and knew that this time she'd have to be damn careful. There was only space for one more of her flagstones and she watched the ledge carefully, hearing Tilly's soft whine.
"Easy, girl," She said brightly, "I'm all right. Zev, you're up. It's the one on this side of Sten... The fifth one."
The Elf started that way and then froze as the stone under Ffion disappeared completely.
"Ffion!!" The sound of her name echoed sharply through the room and vibrated down the chasm and Tilly let out a couple of ferocious barks, feeding off of the others' horror.
"Don't move!" The Warden shouted and her voice drowned out the rest, "Sten, Leliana, stay put! Tilly, sit!"
The Mabari reluctantly sank to her haunches, ears forward and brown eyes unhappy. Sten and the Orlesian moved back to the middle of their stones, thankfully never leaving them completely. Save Tilly, no one had ever heard that note of utter command in the Warden's voice and it was not something to be ignored. Her grey eyes were fierce as she looked at all of them in turn and she almost stamped her foot to prove that there was a solid surface beneath her.
"You have to trust me," She added, the command still there but quieter this time, "I can see what I'm doing and clearly it's worked so far. Zevran, please, the fifth one. We're almost there."
It would have been comical in any other situation. Here their leader was, standing in mid-air, giving orders that none of them felt they could ignore, and she wasn't in any sort of position to physically make them if she had to. But the Elf was heeding her words and as soon as he stepped onto the next stone, the little mirage of Ffion's was becoming more substantial.
"Sten, this side of Leliana; the second one. Tilly, stay," She added the last firmly as the Mabari started standing.
The Qunari stepped onto the stone and the mirage became real. Ffion beamed around at all of them and crossed to the doorway as it opened for her. She turned and saw that the bridge was now completely tangible and Tilly was tearing across to her, jumping and licking at her hands as though she hadn't seen her for days.
"Down, girl, down," She laughed, pushing the Mabari from her as the others reached them.
"I can take her place if you like?" Zevran offered.
Ffion's cheeks flushed a little.
"Tease," She replied and turned to go into the next room.
"Always, my dove, always."
This was the most impressive yet. Directly ahead of them was a flight of steps that led to a huge statue of Andraste, her hands extended as though offering them the tall, graceful urn at her feet. On either side of this, along the walls, were identical alcoves that also held idols and there was no sign of decay or abandonment here. The spiders had not been able to gain the upper hand and the flagstones and walls were clean-swept and looked new in spite of the age of this temple. And of course, between them and the urn was a line of flames that were leaping a little higher than Tilly's head. It stretched from one wall to the opposite, burning with a fire's natural heat, but without its natural growth and destruction. Positioned on their side, in the middle of the room, was an altar of sorts and Ffion walked to it, studying more carvings of Andraste's grace and flame. It took her a moment to spot the words that were etched amongst the vines and flowers and when she did, Leliana was already reading them.
"Cast off the trappings of worldly life and cloak yourself in the goodness of spirit. King and slave, lord and beggar; be born anew in the Maker's sight," The Orlesian's voice was soft and she had the storyteller's cadence that the riddle needed. Her gaze went to Ffion's and she cocked her head a little, "Trappings of worldly life? Do you think it means our armor?"
Ffion read the riddle again and felt her own thoughts going down that same path. She let out a sigh and inclined her head.
"Only one way to find out," She answered and then added as Leliana began to pull her bow and arrows from her back, "No, Leliana, I think... I mean those spirits only listened to my answers and it was my... I think this is meant for me. Let me try it first at least, yeah?"
Leliana looked rather put out, but she conceded the point.
"I understand," She said and her disappointment was rather comical. Who would have thought someone would be upset after being told not to walk through flames? "If you're sure?"
"I'm sure," Ffion slipped her weapons from her back and unfastened her boots, "So far all of the tasks have seemed to depend on my own faith, why should this be any different? And not one smart comment from you, Zev, unless you want me to cut out your tongue."
"Such violence, my Warden," The Elf purred the words as he smiled, "You have my firm promise. But this does not stop me from watching most avidly, yes?"
Ffion's cheeks flooded with color and she did her best to ignore him as she struggled briefly with one of the straps on her breastplate. She saw that Sten was thoughtfully turning from her and she wanted to thank him as Leliana settled onto the floor and dipped one hand into a pouch tied to her belt. She proceeded to munch at a few pieces of cheese and ham which she shared with Tilly, who wagged her stub tail and perched beside the Orlesian.
Ffion felt very awkward indeed, standing next to the altar and stripping off each piece of her armor. She stacked it in a neat pile, replaying her father's words over and over in her head, as a distraction, and always coming back to the realization that she just wasn't ready to leave the memory of her parent's death behind her. For now it had to be remembered because there was no way she could keep the strength she needed for the face-off with the bastard Howe. She had finished with her armor and was still lost in her thoughts when Zevran's voice cut through them.
"It said worldly trappings, yes?" He observed in a rather lazy drawl, knowing that she had been too wrapped in her own world to notice his scrutiny. The chasm was coming close to the surface again and he was ready to try anything to distract her. She looked far too lost and hopeless when her thoughts became dark and he didn't like it. And disregard the fact that it was the darkness that originally drew him to her and made him believe she was a kindred spirit. That rather macabre desire had disappeared the moment he had seen the warmth and innocence within her and those quickly became the only things he wanted from her. And the surefire way to get them was to charm and embarrass, "Do you think this means clothing as well?"
The Warden's face went bright red and Leliana giggled. Ffion's grey eyes were truly alarmed and she read the inscription again before glancing at Leliana.
"Do you really think so?" She asked and her concern was somehow endearing.
Leliana had a hard time keeping herself from winking at Zevran, but she had to admit that part of her shared Ffion's worries. It would be awful to come all this way, having subjected Ffion to that emotional turmoil, only to misstep here and make it all count for nothing. She smiled gently at the Warden instead and lifted her shoulders.
"It is something to take into account, no?" She answered finally.
Ffion's eyes narrowed as she glanced between them, barely taking note of Sten's facing the room again.
"Is this a joke?" She demanded, almost but not quite putting her hands on her hips like she was their den-mother, "Are you two trying-"
"If we waste anymore time Chirpy will get nervous. He did remind you that you only left him with two to send, yes?" Zevran interrupted his Warden with ease, his amber eyes dancing.
"And could you imagine Oghren and Morrigan attempting those trials?" Leliana added, picking up the Elf's track, "Those poor spirits-"
"Oh, Maker's balls!" Ffion exclaimed in a breath.
She stripped her leggings off in one fluid move and tossed them to the floor beside her armor, and her cotton shirt joined them a moment later. Not looking at any of them and telling Tilly to stay put, she stepped to the line of flames, took a deep breath, and steeled herself before walking through them.
Zevran lived up to his words and watched her very avidly. Ffion was hiding quite the little shape underneath her leather armor and he would be a liar if he said he wasn't affected by it. She had a true hour-glass shape; her skin was milky white and looked heart-stoppingly soft. There were only a few marks of this hard living and these scars had been so well tended there was little risk that they would mar the perfection he saw in her. Her smallclothes were finely tailored, but it was very easy to imagine what was beneath them and he had an almost painful desire to tug her hair loose so the chocolate curls tumbled down her bare back, over those beautifully rounded shoulders, and...
But the thought was cut short. The Guardian was suddenly standing with their Warden on the other side of the flames and Leliana started to her feet, her expression studious. The Elf had been quick enough to notice the way that she had looked at Ffion and he was more intrigued than ever. He was still quite sure the Warden would disappoint her and he wondered how Leliana managed this. Not that this was anything to discuss now, and indeed, the Guardian was speaking with Ffion in a most pleasant manner.
"You have been through the trials of the Gauntlet. You have followed the path of Andraste and, like her, you have been cleansed. You have proven yourself worthy, pilgrim. You may approach the ashes."
Ffion, desperately wanting to grab her shirt or at the very least cross her arms over her chest, nodded her head at him. She was very aware of the way Zevran and Leliana were both watching her and the thought struck her like lightning.
"Wait," She said quickly as the Guardian started to turn away, "Leliana... I mean, this means more to her than any of us. May she come across and come to the urn with me? She wouldn't forgive me if I didn't at least ask."
Leliana's lips parted in surprise and she beamed at Ffion. The Guardian was almost smiling at the Warden and when he spoke, his voice was gentle.
"You have more faith than even you know, Warden Ffion," He said quietly, "It is most intriguing. Yes, your companions may cross. They will need to if you are to leave this temple. There is a door leading to the summit just there," He pointed to the shadows to the right of the stairs, "Andraste guide you in your quest and keep you close to the Maker's hand."
The Guardian disappeared again and Leliana scooped Ffion's things up into her arms and crossed the flames without trouble. Tilly, after a brief moment of hesitation, jumped nimbly across as well, and Zevran and Sten joined them. As she pulled on her clothes, the Warden noted that the men both winced as though the fire was too hot. But Leliana was walking slowly towards the steps, no longer paying attention to Ffion or anyone else, and the Warden trailed behind her, distracted. The steps were smooth and even, with very little wear, and Andraste's serene statue towered over them. Two shallow bowls held flames at either end of the stairs and they burned with the same warm peace of that fire far below them, in the first cavern, where Genitivi and Syd waited patiently. The urn was a pale shining gold and Ffion, setting her armor to the side once more, glanced at Leliana as the Orlesian halted at the bottom of the steps.
"I am not worthy of this, Ffion," She said softly, her blue eyes fixed on the urn and the doubt written across her face, "I have made so many mistakes, told lies, deceived innocents... I shouldn't even be here."
Ffion cocked her head at the Orlesian, pulling at her cotton shirt and missing the weight of her armor. She was struck by Leliana's words and spoke bluntly, with her usual honesty.
"Not worthy?" She repeated, "Leliana, you're the most devout person I've met in a long time and the Guardian wouldn't have given you permission to come with me if you weren't worthy of it. All of us have made mistakes, but I was always taught that the Maker is merciful and when you recognize your faults and ask forgiveness, then he forgives. You have nothing to worry about. Now come on, we need to get what we came here for."
She started up the steps and Leliana smiled broadly, touched by her kind words. The Orlesian joined Ffion at the urn and was once more stunned into silence: she just couldn't believe she was standing there. The Warden wasn't quite as awed. She studied the urn for a moment and saw more of Andraste's symbols etched into the gleaming surface. It was beautiful and the lines of it curved gracefully, standing about to mid-thigh. She tugged an empty leather pouch from her belt and carefully pulled the lid from the urn. No matter what her thoughts on religion were, these were still the remains of a woman who had been very great in her time and she deserved their respect.
"Ffion, can I..." Leliana's soft voice trailed off and she started again uncertainly, "May I take the pinch?"
The Warden smiled and extended the little pouch.
"Of course," She answered and stepped aside to give the Orlesian room.
Leliana took a small scoop of the ashes with the utmost reverence and replaced the lid gently. Her fingers lingered on the urn for a moment as her lips moved in a silent prayer and then she handed the pouch to Ffion. Her face was completely at peace and she smiled at the Warden.
"Thank you, Ffion, you have no idea what that means to me," She said and her voice was still awed, "And now we can move on, no?"
"Right," The Warden replied promptly and went back down the steps to her pile of armor and arms.
Zevran was leaning rather insolently on the thick stone railing, swinging her swords in their leather sheaths from one hand. His amber eyes were watching her as boldly as ever and they began dancing as she started strapping her armor back in place.
"A pity society demands clothing, yes?" He said and grinned at her flushing cheeks.
"A thought which chaffs terribly on you to be sure," Sten was not in the mood to observe the usual back and forth with the Elf and his attention was solely on Ffion, "This is it, correct? Then let us return to the task at hand."
Ffion tugged her boots on, one hand pressing to Tilly's head so she could keep her balance. She snagged the swords from Zevran and slung them back where they belonged. Sparing a sole glance at Leliana who was more than a little reluctant to leave the temple, she headed to the heavy door that the Guardian indicated. As Sten stepped forward and pulled it open, Ffion couldn't help but glance back through the chasm room and into the abandoned hall where her father's specter had been. She heard his voice, felt that gentle breath on her cheek, and knew that she was approaching that gaping, pain-riddled canyon. She would give anything and everything to have one last moment with her mother and father and wished that she could at least glimpse him one last time. But instead it was Zevran that was stepping into view, his expression gentle as he put one hand under her elbow and steered her through the door.
"My dove, there is nothing more for you here," He told her softly and she didn't think she had ever heard that note of utter sweetness from him, "Our Sten is right, do not dwell on this so that it destroys you."
"Zevran, right now... I don't have a choice," The Warden answered him in complete exhaustion. But she was straightening her shoulders and holding her head high, and he found this both very endearing and very attractive, "Come on, let's go and see if Wynne is up for the trip back."
The sun had set completely and the temperature began dropping well below freezing as they slid down into the crevice again. The clouds that had been slowly building to the south were now gathering amongst the peaks around them and small flakes of snow started to drift down to settle on the party. They had to scramble up the path again using both feet and hands, and Tilly was the only one that was able to climb with any ease.
And then, they were back in the cavern again and found that Wynne was much better. She was sitting up and sipping at a potion steaming in a pottery mug. Morrigan lounged on one side of the warming fire, reading a big battered tome; and Oghren cradled his flask as he perched next to Wynne, talking too loudly and blinking far too much. Alistair was dropping another log onto the fire and he beamed as they crossed the cavern to him.
"Just in time," He greeted brightly, "I was getting ready to send one of them after you."
Ffion glanced between the remnants of the party with arched brows though she smiled gently at Wynne before responding.
"I'm sure they would have been thrilled," She said dryly and motioned with one hand to the path that led back down through the mountain, "We've done our part for Isolde. If you're ready for the trip back, Wynne, we could get back to Genitivi and Syd and rest a bit before we press on."
The enchanter finished the contents of her mug and she slowly got to her feet, Alistair beside her in a flash. He put a steadying hand under her elbow as Morrigan shoved her tome back into her pack and Oghren hooked his flask from his belt. He functioned incredibly well even with the flood of alcohol that must be coursing through him and Ffion couldn't help but be impressed.
"I'm all right, Alistair, thank you," Wynne said quietly, pulling herself free and standing on her own without trouble, "And I think I'll be fine now, Ffion."
The Warden nodded and took a last sweeping glance around the cavern. Zevran was right: there was nothing for her here, not anymore. But as she led them down into the tunnels again, she couldn't stop the fleeting thought: I'm not letting go, not yet. I can't! And it was as though a darkness settled over her and she knew that whatever peace had been within her grasp in that Gauntlet was now completely gone.
They made it back to the Genitivi and Syd without trouble and the little donkey practically turned himself inside-out when he saw Sten. The brother looked at them in surprise, leaving his leather folder and the papers that he had spread out by the warming fire. He had managed to put together a makeshift table and when he got gingerly to his feet, it was clear that he had been sitting there for some time.
"You're back," He said and his brown eyes were lit with excitement, "What happened? Did you make it to the temple? What was it like?"
Leliana laughed at the brother's childlike intensity, sharing his glee.
"It was awe-inspiring," She said, "I do not think anything has ever touched me quite so deeply."
Ffion could practically see the words bubbling to Oghren's lips and she spoke first before the Dwarf could be crass.
"What are your plans now, Genitivi?" She questioned as she moved to the fire and extended her hands to its comfortable warmth, "You've spent all this time hunting for the urn and now that you've found it... what's the next step?"
He was ready for that question.
"Now we spread the word," His face was aglow, "Every pilgrim that has a wish to see the urn will have it granted. This is not something that should remain closed up in this mountainside as though we are ashamed of what Andraste did. Perhaps, in your travels, you could-"
"No," Ffion answered simply and tonelessly. She shook her head and met Genitivi's surprised gaze squarely, not meaning to insult the man personally. She just wanted to get her point across to him, "I won't stand in your way, brother, but I'm not going to have any more of a part in this."
"You're not going to convince me, Leliana, so don't try," The Warden settled onto the cold stone floor by the fire and pulled the pack with their food to her. She was done with this place, wanted nothing more to do with it, and they had to realize this, "But Andraste was a simple, noble woman who was doing what she felt right and I think she'd find it ridiculous for people to make such a fuss over mere ashes. She's dead and gone; remember her good life and accomplishments, but let the dead rest in peace."
Leliana looked at her in shock and Genitivi's expression was slightly pityingly. Wynne was just as surprised as the Orlesian by this outburst while the others nodded with approval and Alistair sank beside her to snag a piece of ham and slice of cheese.
"You really believe that, Ffion?" Leliana asked, still not sure she had heard the Warden correctly.
Ffion was quiet for a moment, thinking again of what she had seen in the Gauntlet. And what of your family? A little voice asked. Are you letting them rest in peace? She shrugged that away and nodded firmly.
"I do," She replied, tossing some jerky to Tilly, "Like I said, Genitivi, I won't stand in the way of whatever you decide here, but I do have to warn you. You had told us to keep heading up in those passages, so they didn't get completely scourged. There are quite a few dragonlings to watch for, there's probably an odd drake or two still, and who knows how many cultists are left. Oh, and in the pass between the peaks, there's an adult dragon that's nested. She didn't bother us; Zevran guessed that she was just coming back from hunting. But you'll want to call for help before turning this into a safe haven for your pilgrims."
Genitivi arched his brows at Ffion's flippant tone. It was clear that he was rethinking his initial respect for her and he didn't like that she was willing to leave 'his pilgrims' to the dangers of a mountain cavern and adult dragon. It didn't seem a very hero-like thing to do, and he never would have thought that she would merely accomplish her own gains and move on without considering those coming behind her.
"Indeed," He replied, "I'll make sure to keep that in mind."
Ffion glanced up at him from the orange that she was peeling, surprised by the dry tone.
"I don't mean any offense," She said, "We just didn't have the time. Redcliffe is waiting for our return and who knows the state of the Arl now. Anyway, we don't have time to argue. I'd rather get clear of the village tonight considering that we killed its revered father and elders."
"You think they won't be waiting up for us?" Sten questioned.
"Oh, I know they will be," Ffion fastened the pack again and handed it to him so he could load Syd once more, "But it would be so much easier to sneak through nightfall as opposed to daylight."
"So that's it?" Genitivi asked, watching as they prepared to leave.
"That's it," Alistair replied, "Are you coming along? You're more than welcome, we'll keep you safe."
The brother shook his head, gesturing to his paperwork with one hand. He smiled a little, knowing that this feeling of annoyance was rather ridiculous. These people had saved his life and had the faith to approach Andraste's temple. And their return meant that they had been found worthy. He had no right to grudge their justified decision to continue on the path that would save Ferelden from the devouring Blight.
"No, I'm staying put," He said finally, "Thank you for your concern, but I believe that the village will suffer greatly without Eirik. He used more thuggery and fear to control the people than reverence for Andraste and reassurance that they were doing the right thing in protecting this place. I don't think many of them would cause you trouble. They won't know what to do without an all powerful leader telling them what to think and say."
Ffion nodded and extended her hand to him.
"Well, then, I wish you all the best, Genitivi, and thank you for your help. We never would have gotten this far without you."
"I should be thanking you," The brother replied and smiled genuinely, "And when you make it to Denerim again, be sure to look me up."
"I will," The Warden promised.
Alistair shook his hand as well and Wynne and Leliana both exchanged a few words with him while the others followed Ffion's lead. Their little excursion into the Frostbacks was finally over.