Shades of Grey and Black

Meeting Ffion Cousland and a Family Massacre

"Out!! You mangy, flea-ridden beast! Out, out, out!!"

The shout reverberated throughout the Cousland castle, bouncing off stone slab and wood doors and making it sound like there were half a dozen Nan's instead of just a lone, incredibly pissed off one.

Ffion Cousland winced. Leave it to Tilly to find her way into Nan's kitchen in the midst of the cook trying to pull off one of her famed meals before the company arrived. With a sigh, Ffion dropped her well-worn book at the base of the tree and leaped down gracefully. Her annoyance spiked. Her plan had been working beautifully, too. She hated when company came to stay. As much as she adored her parents, her mother's incessant pushing towards marriage and asking... Well, not even veiled questions about any available sons; brothers; cousins, that a guest of theirs might have was rapidly getting old, and was also the reason she had hidden herself away in the towering willow.

As usual, the thought made her wince again and her brother's favorite curse immediately ran through her mind. Maker's balls! She was only twenty-two and didn't even want to think about... sex, let alone marriage. Besides, she was enjoying being the only woman in the castle that could reduce grown men into hissy fits when she bested them at dual weapons, archery, or knife throwing. Which would surely come to a complete and sudden halt if and when she got 'married off'.

Add to this, now that she was out of hiding, Eleanor Cousland would corner her and demand she go upstairs to make herself 'presentable'. She grimaced at this thought. She was skirting the main hall entrance, choosing instead to walk through the kitchen garden and enter the direct door there. Leaning against the wall of the castle was a guest room mirror that had been brought out to be scrubbed and she paused before it. She wasn't even sure what 'presentable' meant and she studied herself rather critically, something she never normally did. Despite others' words, Ffion had never considered herself any great beauty and had always thought that people were simply kow-towing to her parents when they complimented her. She had a rather round face with almond shaped grey eyes and a certain trick of setting her jaw that transformed her expression into hard lines. She was told once that she had an attractive, pouting mouth that men found appealing and women envied, not that Ffion would know. In her own mind, her one great beauty was her hair, which tumbled down her back to hang at her elbows in a mass of chocolate colored curls... when she let it.

"Cur!!" Nan's screech was gaining in pitch and violence, "When I get my hands on you-"

Ffion shook herself and scowled at her reflection. She didn't like this sentimentality and without another glance, she jerked open the door and walked into the kitchen. Stout, grey haired Nan was standing in front of the larder door, her face red and furious, and her arms folded tightly across her chest. The five Elves the Cousland's employed as kitchen help were grouped together across the room, not bothering to hide their amusement. They glanced up as Ffion came in and grinned even more widely when she held a finger to her lips.

"Nan dear, I believe I heard you calling," She said jovially.

The cook rounded on her, dark brown eyes flashing. She unfolded her arms and jabbed a finger at the larder.

"That... beast you call a pet is in my larder doing its damnedest to destroy tonight's feast," Nan's gaze became malevolent and Ffion couldn't help but grin cheekily. The number of times she had seen that look over the years and thoughts of how it had terrified her and her brother Fergus suddenly became too much. She felt ten years old again and caught stealing pies, "Young miss, I swear, if I find that you put that beast up to this, I-"

"My sweet Nan," Ffion interrupted and stepped up to twine her arm around the cook's waist, "I'm hurt. You know I would never do such a thing, not when I know how hard you must be working to make tonight perfect."

Nan shook Ffion off, but not nearly as roughly as she intended and the young woman knew she had stemmed Nan's angry tide, for now.

"Don't you go pulling my chain," She reprimanded and the tone was much softer, "I know all your charms, young miss, and it's no use. Now, be a dear and get that animal out of my larder before I send for Ser Gilmore to do it."

"Yes, ma'am," Ffion answered meekly and saw by Nan's expression that she had capitulated and was once more under her thumb.

She went into the larder and instantly saw why Nan was so upset. There was an overturned shelf and three tipped barrels, one of which had popped open, scattering rice across the floor. The others had stayed intact and so had the sugar sack that had fallen. Rolls of cheese were lying amongst the rice and there also were netted bags of fresh fruit. Ffion was surprised Tilly wasn't helping herself to the convenient cheeses and then she spotted the furiously wagging tail behind the upset shelf.

"Tilly," She said firmly and the chestnut Mabari jerked about, dropping the dead rat in her mouth and bounding to her lady. Ffion gave her an absent pat and stepped around the mess to get a look at what her dog had discovered. There, just behind where the shelf had been, was a hole big enough for the rats to squeeze through, "Good job, Tilly, good girl."

The Mabari crouched on her front legs, stub tail waving so quickly it was nothing but a chestnut blur. Her brown eyes were shinning happily at the praise in Ffion's voice and she pressed her stocky body next to her lady so she could shove her nose into the hole.

"Nan!" Ffion called, "Can you come here a moment?"

Ffion set the barrels right and was placing the cheese and fruit on another shelf when the cook appeared in the doorway. Her face became stormy again until she spotted the dead rat. Her eyes flickered and for a moment, she almost looked sheepish.

"Well, I guess I'll have to set some traps," She finally conceded.

Ffion didn't push it. Instead, she nodded and then motioned to the shelf.

"Since I'm here, I'll help you set this right."

Nan looked on the verge of protesting; she had never approved of the Teyrn's daughter taking part in menial labor. But once 'young miss' got an idea in her head, not even the Maker could change her mind. The cook helped to replace the shelf after shoving the dead rat into a bag and then called for one of the Elves to bring a broom to sweep up the rice.

"Now, young miss," She said in her 'don't interrupt and argue' tone that Ffion always reveled in knowing her brother had heard more often, "You've been hiding from your mother. She came in just a moment ago looking for you and here you are, close enough to hear me shout. Go, take your mutt and act like a lady for the Teyrna's guests."

"Oh, acting like a lady takes too much effort and there's no fun in it," Ffion moaned dramatically as she allowed the cook to shoo her from the larder.

"No games, miss! The Teyrn, Maker bless him, was always too soft with you, letting you grow up so it's like he has two boys. It's time you became a lady and take a husband and stop your swordplay-"

"And put up my hair and learn to wear a dress and carry a fan," Ffion interrupted and then jerked playfully at Nan's apron, "I get enough of this from Marmie, don't you start, Nan dear. As soon as Fergus and Father are gone, I'll need an ally."

Ffion left the kitchen, absurdly pleased with herself over her success with Nan. Her high spirits made her more malleable and she was giving into the inevitable before she quite realized it. With a sigh of longing for the last rays of sunshine outside, she let her hand fall to Tilly's head and muttered,

"Well, girl, at least I squeezed a half hour out of it, right?" She smiled as the Mabari cocked her head and seemed to understand, "Come on, let's go keep each other out of trouble."

Tilly let out an almost protesting whine as they continued down the hallway. Ffion felt the rebellion that was her second nature pulling at her and she went the long way around the castle as she made for the private quarters. She was just skirting one of the side doors to the main hall when she heard her father call her from inside the room. She doubled back and entered, immediately stifling her annoyed sigh when she spotted Arl Rendon Howe. Howe was a friend and fellow soldier of Bryce Cousland's. They had fought together years ago when the Orlesians were wrestled out of Ferelden and they had remained fairly close throughout that time. Neither Fergus nor Ffion cared much for him, and his snide comments about his ancestors' folly in letting the castle trade into Cousland hands were not as flippant as he wanted them to be. Ffion in particular had never liked his ever-shifting blue eyes; they reminded her of a fox and it was not a good thing. She was well aware that Howe believed her to be his way of regaining the castle that had once belonged to his family and that was another reason she wanted nothing to do with him. But her father was beckoning and she forced a smile. She couldn't refuse her father anything.

"Howe, you remember my daughter, Ffion," Bryce was saying as she reached them.

Howe's blue eyes flickered over her in an appraising sort of way that made her stiffen with displeasure. Tilly, in tune with her lady's feelings and thoughts unlike any other, let out a soft growl and her hackles rose.

"Tilly," Ffion said quietly and gave Howe a short bow, "Arl, it is a pleasure to see you again."

"And you, my lady," Howe answered with a submissiveness that made her skin crawl, "It is a pity my son Thomas was detained. He would have enjoyed seeing you again."

Ffion could feel her father's warning glance. It was a rare thing and she knew he saved it solely for times like this. He was well aware of her tendency to speak long before she thought and her gift of sarcasm was unmatched. Her eyes twinkled rather wickedly, and though for a moment she looked apologetic, it didn't last long.

"Your son, my lord? To what end, if I may ask?"

There was a surprised silence and Ffion distinctly heard Gilmore's chuckle from the main door. She had to bite her tongue then and resist temptation to look at him.

"To what end?" Howe repeated and was chuckling himself, "Why, Cousland, your daughter has more of the Teyrna's spirit than you claimed."

"She certainly does," Bryce answered and his voice filled with laughter. He fixed his grey-blue eyes on his daughter and looked like he was going to continue but Gilmore approached then.

"I'm sorry to interrupt, my lord," He said, "But there is a Ser Duncan asking for an audience."

"Of course, Roderick, send him in," Bryce was a little absentminded, trying to hear what Howe had asked the moment Gilmore spoke.

Ffion grasped the opportunity when she saw it and was at Gilmore's side the moment he waved for one of his men to admit this Duncan. He grinned broadly down at her, his green eyes dancing. She and Roderick Gilmore had grown up competing in everything and though they had fought like cats and dogs when they were young, he had become Ffion's best friend, next to Tilly of course.

"I heard you successfully sicked Tilly on the larder," He teased, "Did she knick anything good?"

Ffion mocked indignation and then pouted to make him laugh.

"I did not sick my dog on anything," She protested and gave in to that desire to chuckle, "And you learned long ago Tilly is always in it for her own gratification," The Mabari let out a pleased sounding woof and Ffion added, "Well, what did they say? Do you get to go to Ostagar?"

Gilmore's face fell briefly, but it was not in his disposition to be pessimistic.

"No, but the commander did put me in charge of the guard here, so that's something."

"It certainly is," She answered and grinned, "It means you will be reporting to me after the men leave. Oh, this will be fun."

Gilmore chuckled again and could only imagine the schemes Ffion was cooking up. She had always idolized Fergus and emulated his mastery of pranks and practical jokes. It was incredible how much she looked like him when her thoughts turned mischievous and he hated to put a stop to it at the Teyrn's quick glance.

"Your father's giving me the Look," He told her apologetically, "And you might like meeting Ser Duncan. But don't give this up and I'll try to slip away sometime during the feast. We need to have one last hoorah before those responsible for us are gone."

"I'll hold you to that, Rick," She promised and slipped back to the Teyrn's side.

"There you are, Pup," Bryce said and was at once his easygoing, pleasant self; he wouldn't have used that nickname otherwise, "I'd like you to run up and get Fergus, but before you do I want to introduce Ser Duncan, a Grey Warden who will be traveling to Ostagar as well. Duncan, this is my daughter, Ffion."

Ffion gave the Grey Warden a much more formal bow than she gave Howe and studied him with open curiousity. The Warden was about her father's age, his skin coffee colored and the kind, clever eyes nearly black. His hair, also black, hung to his shoulders with the sides pulled up and secured in a braid. There were touches of grey at his temples and in the neatly trimmed beard and his broad shoulders made him appear much taller than he was.

"It is a pleasure, lady," He said and his voice was deep and calm, "I have heard tales of the Teyrn's daughter, both her skills in weaponry and her beauty. And I see now the latter did you no justice."

Ffion inclined her head to hide her wince and wasn't nearly quick enough. She caught the Warden's slight frown and felt her father's second warning glance. She knew it would be very unwise to allow her tongue to run away this time.

"Thank you, Warden. I hope you enjoy your stay in Highever," She murmured, "If you will excuse me, I must look after tonight's preparations and see my brother off."

She left the hall and stopped at the bottom of the stairway leading up to the private quarters. Her mother was standing with three others on the landing just above her, right at the entrance to the gardens and Ffion grimaced before she could help it. Caught, damn it! Her mind told her as her mother glanced her way, and she was looking around for an escape when footsteps rang from behind.

"Lady?" A voice called and she turned to find that the Grey Warden had followed her. He smiled as he approached and for a moment seemed rather self-conscious, "I apologize for detaining you, but I have to ask. Did I insult you? Please tell me if I have blundered, it was not what I intended."

Ffion was taken aback and suddenly wished she hadn't acted so childishly. That embarrassment; the frustration with being forced towards marriage when she wasn't ready; the desire to cast off all responsibilities and fight alongside her brother, were boiling over. Before she could keep herself in check, her true nature took hold and, as usual, her tongue ruled.

"Not at all, Warden. My father would tell you it is the Cousland strain in me taking over; my mother would sigh and explain it's my thickheaded refusal to settle down and marry. My sister-in-law would agree while my brother would laugh, allow his soldier to take over and tell you it is one of those woman's issues wreaking havoc with my..." She trailed off, coming to herself suddenly and remembering just who it was she was talking to in such a manner. Meeting his gaze, feeling her cheeks growing hot, and wishing she could melt into the floor, she added, "I'm sorry, my lord, I have a habit of speaking long before I think."

To her immense relief, Duncan was chuckling and the kindness in his eyes was even deeper than she thought. But along with that there was something more, a ruthless intelligence and a cruelty in the lines of his mouth that made him rather imposing if he chose. He appraised her with much more interest this time and his look was piercing.

"And you do not like being known as a beauty?" He added.

Ffion grinned and thanked her stars this Warden turned out to be human.

"Precisely," She agreed briskly, "It has always been my contention that women should be known for bravery and valor on the field much as men are. We aren't all just marriage-ready vessels an Arl or Bann can show off. But that's the Cousland tongue again and of course you can't trust anything a noble says."

His appraising look deepened and Ffion suddenly felt more self-conscious than she ever had before.

"If I thought it possible, lady, I would take you with me to Ostagar when I go," He said softly and a look of real frustration marred his features briefly, "You have just the spirit those men need."

Ffion felt her heart leap at the prospect before her more rational side could squash it. How many times had she had that very thought? Her mind had gone wild with ideas of disguising herself as a boy and joining her brother's men after she heard where Fergus was headed. Maker's breath! She still had thoughts of it: until her adoration and respect for her parents got in the way.

"Warden, you should know better than to tempt a lady who already has half a mind to do just that," She reprimanded lightly and then added on a more serious note, "Are you leaving with Fergus, then?"

"No, lady, I'm waiting for the Arl's men," He answered and the frustration had disappeared, "Though I am told they were delayed along the way."

Ffion nodded in understanding and knew she had tarried too long. She grasped at the only available opportunity for further discussion with him.

"Well, Warden, if they are going to be late, join us for the feast. We would be honored to have you. Now I must go, I'm sorry. I have to prepare myself for what the Maker intended me to be."

"Would that I could make that more, lady," He was being quite serious in spite of the teasing words.

"Don't lose heart yet, Warden."

Eleanor Cousland was alone on the landing when Ffion reached her and she fixed her daughter with an accusing stare. She held a watering can in one hand that she set down with more force than necessary and though her sea-green eyes were amused, the set of her jaw said otherwise. She studied her daughter and, for one of very few times, wished Ffion wasn't so like her. Eleanor had been raised the daughter of a general, was a warrior herself and had married for love. And now she saw so much of that in Ffion and hated squashing it. But the girl failed to realize her parents weren't going to be around forever and was absolutely silly about the mere suggestion of a suitor.

"Out of hiding, I see. Lady Landra and Dairren missed you."

"Oh, Maker's breath, Marmie," Ffion replied, "I know Dairren is Father's second, but honestly! The boy doesn't know the hilt from the blade of a sword and I actually caught him trying to fire bolts with a longbow."

"He has improved much since you last saw him four years ago now and he was sweet enough to ask about you," Her mother replied, plucking dead blooms from the bush at the entrance to the gardens, "I think you should give him a chance. He will be staying for the feast of course. Arl Howe's men will be very late."

"I suppose I shall have to ask Ser Aron's permission first?"

Eleanor frowned at her daughter, not liking the dancing grey eyes and impish grin.

"Who is Ser Aron?"

"Dairren's lover, apparently. He's an Antivan that Bann Loren hired as Dairren's squire and-"

"Ffion Cousland, don't you go spreading those kinds of vicious rumors!" Eleanor exclaimed, pulling so hard at one of the dead blooms, she broke off the whole branch. She brandished this at Ffion, "Bann Loren has been nothing but good to our family, Dairren is loyal to your father, and you say something like that!"

"I am not starting rumors," Ffion was laughing now, oblivious to her mother's flashing eyes, "I heard that from Fergus. Speaking of which, do you think he and Oriana are still saying goodbye? I don't want to interrupt anything and have to gouge out my eyes."

This time Eleanor smacked the arm closest to her with the broken branch before Ffion could dance out of the way. She shook her head, sighing.

"Oh, what am I going to do with you?" She asked quietly and realized even more poignantly she was fighting an uphill battle that was quickly becoming impossible.

"Why do you have to do anything with me?" Ffion asked immediately and picked a couple of dead blooms off the bush herself, "Keep me around as a court jester and use me for favors with any Bann or Arl that needs convincing. Or if that thought is as appalling to you as me, let me go with the Warden. He mentioned it, you know."

Her mother smiled in spite of herself. Her daughter's spirit was irrepressible and very contagious.

"The Warden was specifically told he couldn't talk of Conscripting either one of you," Eleanor answered and her tone had changed to what Ffion and Fergus dubbed 'the Rock', which merely meant there would be no changing her mind.

"I figured as much," Ffion sighed and then added as a means of retaliation, "I'll have to go back to making the men cry when I best them at dual weaponry and plotting general chaos with Rick then."

She was leaving the landing, heading up the second flight of steps before her mother responded,

"Don't even, Ffion! If I see you for one moment with your head next to Roderick's, you are both going to regret the day you were born!"

Ffion had slept restlessly and when the first sounds of fighting reached her, she bolted upright. Tilly was growling furiously, her chestnut fur on end and ears laid flat against her skull. She tossed herself out of bed and to her wardrobe. Pulling on her duster leather armor and wondering what the hell was going on, considering she hadn't been alerted, she froze completely when the scream came. It was a piercing scream of pure terrified horror and when it was cut off abruptly, she knew just how much trouble everyone was in. Tilly's growl spiked in violence and Ffion barely had time to fasten the last strap on her boot when the door burst open. The Mabari reacted like the war hound she was and launched herself at the archer standing there. The man wasn't expecting that and he stumbled back, going to the ground with Tilly's weight pinning him. He barely had time to utter a hoarse cry before the dog's teeth found his neck and he went still.

Ffion's own instincts kicked in as another soldier came at her door and a moment later he was dropped with one of her knives jutting from his eye. She relaxed her throwing arm stiffly and would have been shocked she had just killed another human if she hadn't caught sight of the room across from hers. With a hoarse cry, she ran over the flagstones and fell to her knees beside the sprawled bodies of her sister-in-law and nephew.

"No, no, no, no," She moaned, reaching out to touch them. Her fingers brushed Oren's hair and she didn't register that she was trembling uncontrollably, "No, Oren... Oriana..."

Eyes smarting with tears, she felt rage welling within her. The scream was suddenly made clear and with the way Oriana was... posed, she did not have a quick or easy death. It was obvious she had been brutalized: her clothing was torn and there were bruises and gashes everywhere. She had been kept alive for that reason and Ffion could only hope that Oren was gone before any of this happened. She wondered why she hadn't heard anything and burning fury made her back stiffen and the wish to kill more of those soldiers overpowering. At that thought, she reached out once more, closing Oriana's staring eyes and pulling the blanket from the bed to cover her. It didn't seem right, leaving her own sister-in-law in such a state and as she was running her fingers through Oren's hair for the last time, the sobs hovering just beneath the surface threatened to overwhelm her. She got to her feet and reluctantly left them, sending one last, longing look back and closing the door of her brother's room. The tears almost won out as she realized she was closing a door on a portion of her life forever. She'd never hear Oren calling her 'Aunt Fifee' again or Oriana teasing her in that lilting Antivan accent; never feel that little pang she might be missing something as she looked at Fergus and his family...

Tilly's whimper broke these thoughts and she ran a hand across her eyes, wiping away the escaped tears. She heard quick, light footsteps and when she saw her mother; her relief was almost as debilitating as the tears had been. She hardly blinked at Eleanor's armor, grimly pleased she had thought to close the bedroom.

"Oh, darling, thank the Maker you're all right," Eleanor looked around the hallway, her eyes lingering briefly on the dead men before settling on Fergus' door, "Have you checked on Oriana? I'm sure she and Oren are-"

"Mother, don't open the door," The last thing Ffion wanted was for her mother to see Oriana like that and she was surprised at how calm her voice was. So she wouldn't have to see the dawning realization on Eleanor's face, she bent to examine the dead men's armor, "Bastard! It's Howe's men! Delayed, my ass, this was intentional."

"They're gone?" Eleanor's voice was small and a quick glance told Ffion how close she was to breaking down, "Both of them?"

"Marmie," Ffion said uncertainly and took a step towards her, "I... Yes, both of them. Please, Mother, where's Father? We have to-"

"I know," Eleanor's voice was suddenly clear and cold, her fury matching her daughter's. The warrior within her was taking over and her mind jumped automatically to the next step they had to take, "Your father was with Howe. If these are his men..."

She didn't have to continue and both women bolted from the room with Tilly at their heels. Evidence of fighting was everywhere in the castle: there were busted doors, overturned shelves and tables, and the scattered bodies of hired help simply fueled their fire. They came across more of Howe's men in twos and threes but they didn't stand a chance, not when Eleanor and Ffion had the advantage of knowing the castle blindfolded. So far there was no sign of the Teyrn, though a couple from the handful of men left under Gilmore's command had found them and their number had now grown to five. Ffion asked each of them where Gilmore was and none of them seemed to know. She hated this uncertainty and found herself looking searchingly at each body they came upon, praying with all her might they wouldn't turn out to be her father or friend.

When they reached the main hall, it was as though the dam broke. The rest of Gilmore's men were there, fighting to keep the massive doors closed against heavy battering from the outside. And there was Gilmore, bleeding from a deep gash in his forehead and looking grim and determined. When he saw Ffion rush into the hall, relief flooded his expression and he forgot what he doing as he uttered a sharp curse and left the doors to his men, crossing the room in quick strides to catch her up in his arms. It was proof of how scattered everyone was that no one blinked an eye at their falling into the old, familiar gestures of their friendship. Gilmore broke away and gripped her shoulders as he looked her over.

"I'm so glad you're safe," He said with palpable relief.

"Where's Father?" She asked and winced each time a crash came against the door.

Gilmore looked stricken and he squeezed her shoulders briefly. His green eyes slid from hers and he was reluctant to go on.

"He was with the Warden the last time I saw him. He said something about escaping through the cellar."

"Of course!" Eleanor exclaimed, "The old servants' entrance! I had forgotten all about it. Come; gather your men, Roderick, and we'll get out that way."

Gilmore at once became a soldier, squaring his shoulders and lifting his head. Ffion felt her heart drop into her stomach as she recognized that stubborn look.

"I won't, Teyrna," He replied softly and wouldn't look at Ffion, "I have my duty here. My men and I will hold off Howe as long as we can to give you needed time. Move quickly, I don't know how much longer we can do this."

Eleanor looked on the verge of arguing, but she could see it was no use. Ffion had no such qualms.

"No!" She cried and real fear stole through her. She grabbed his forearm, her fingertips white as she held tight to him, "No, Rick, come with us, please. I can't let you do this."

"You have to," He replied and was struck at this role reversal. In the past, it was always Ffion leading: she was the mastermind, plotting their next jokes, making plans to escape their lessons... And now she was looking up at him like a lost child, "You have to be strong, Fi, if Howe gets you... he wins and there will be no going back."

"That doesn't mean you can't come with us," She argued and both of them glanced worriedly at the doors when there was a resounding crack. Time was slipping away and so was Gilmore, "Rick-"

"Yes, it does," He replied gently and brushed her face with one hand, just skirting her temple. It was their sign when one or the other got into trouble: it meant 'your turn' and Ffion was crying now, "Go, Fi."

He ran to help his men hold the door and Eleanor grabbed her daughter's arm, ushering her away. Away from her best friend who, in the blink of an eye, had become the mature one; away from her link to childhood; away from the first boy she'd kissed, an awkward, painful memory they shared laughs over; away from one of the few people outside her family that had seen the true Ffion Cousland and loved her in spite of everything. That sarcastic, act first-ask later, innocent Ffion who took pride in being a mass of contradictions and she was leaving him to face fate alone. She shook herself and flung a knife at the Howe soldier that stood in their way. He dropped instantly and realization came over Ffion. She was closing yet another door in her life and she hated herself for it.

"He is a hero, darling," Her mother told her gently as they reached the kitchen safely, "Never forget that. He's giving-"

"Don't, Mother, please," Ffion interrupted, her voice broken.

They entered the kitchen to find it ransacked and Ffion wondered if it was just hours ago that she had saved Nan's larder and Tilly's life. The larder where, just visible in the flickering torchlight, was a pair of feet and Ffion didn't need to see anymore to tell her who it was. Oh, Nan! She thought, her strength disappearing at her mother's sharp gasp. Ffion pulled her towards the cellar as Eleanor cruelly began to cry. There was a quiet call from within and Ffion was once more sinking to her knees beside someone she loved.

"Papa," She murmured, trying to ignore her mother's tears as she gathered her husband in her arms, "No, Papa."

Bryce's blue-grey eyes opened and he glanced between his wife and daughter uncertainly before it came back to him just where he was. His face, pale with the excessive blood-loss, brightened slightly and he removed one of the blood-coated hands from his ribs to fumble for Ffion's.

"Thank... the Maker," He whispered and squeezed hard on Ffion's fingers. She hardly registered it; she didn't even realize when Duncan sank to his knees beside her, "I... was... so afraid..."

"Don't try to talk, darling," Eleanor told him, "Save your strength."

"My love... you know... I... It's too... late," His voice was below a whisper and the gentle smile seemed to take some effort.

"No!" Ffion heard the hysterical note in her voice and didn't care, "No, Papa, not you. I won't let you go, too. No."

"Oh, Pup... Be strong... Your mother will... need... you... now-" His cough was thick and blood stained his lips red, "More... than ever."

"No, Bryce darling, I will not leave you," In spite of the tears coursing down her cheeks, Eleanor's voice was strong. Her sea-green eyes met Ffion's and she added, "You, dear, must go on. Find your brother, take revenge on that bastard Howe, and live your lives. Live for your father and me and never forget the sacrifices made by those who love you."

"I will look after her, my friends," Duncan's deep voice, at one time so calming to hear, so soothing, was now bringing about Ffion's desertion of her parents and she hated him for it, "She will come to no harm with me."

"Go, darling," Eleanor implored as there was a crash and shouting from somewhere nearby in the castle, "We love you and we always will."

She leaned over, kissing Ffion's forehead and giving her the short blade in her belt. Before Ffion knew it, she was kissing her father's cheek, pressing her forehead to his long enough to hear his gasped,

"I... love you... Pup."

And then Duncan took her arm and pulled her away. The last image she had of her parents before that last door closed, joining Fergus' family and Gilmore, was a shared kiss and her mother's blazing expression as she faced her death.

The trip to Ostagar was a blur to Ffion. They were forced to make good time, putting miles between them and Howe so they would have some semblance of a chance when he realized who was missing from the massacre. After that first night, miserable and sleepless, when she sobbed until her strength was gone, she didn't think she cared whether she lived or died. Duncan was incredibly patient and never pushed her one way or the other. He understood her need to grieve and merely stood by, not saying a word unless he felt she needed it.

Instead he watched her. Sometimes he fixed her with his piercing gaze that left her feeling utterly exposed and she would have demanded to know what he wanted if she really cared. It wasn't until the third day into their travels that she finally caved and asked him if there was something wrong. It was one of the few times she had spoken since they started and she was sure she looked as surprised as him at the sound of her voice. Even then he was conscious of her pain and responded simply that he wanted to know if she still had 'it'. Grief put second for that moment, she had to ask what he meant. With a rather rueful smile, he explained,

"I told you, you had the spirit the other men lacked and you have been through more in the past three days to kill that. I have to make sure you still have it."

Her eyes glittered a paler grey in the light of their campfire. She was leaning against Tilly's warm weight and something about her relaxed pose told him she was becoming an incredibly dangerous person.

"Do I?"

Duncan became enigmatic as he shrugged his shoulders and replied that he would let her know. Which he fully intended, but he was going to have to wait and watch before he committed to any answer. The first night, he wasn't going to count. There was no one who could live through what she had and come out the same person a mere twenty-four hours later. The second, he thought it likely she would simply waste away into nothing and the third day worked to cement this until they staked camp and she asked him about his scrutiny. They had gone on to discuss his past and the Wardens and he began to hope.

It would have been sheer idiocy to expect the same girl to return and she didn't. The one who took her place was older, harsher, with a new-found streak of cruelty that could work in her favor as long as she kept it from consuming her. That fiery spirit that first drew him to her had become ice and was running even deeper. He looked at her now and found himself hating to be in the Arl's shoes when this revenge-bent, grief-filled girl caught up with him.

Ffion waited until the sixth night to ask again and Duncan had to tell her: yes, she was still there. He, in turn, then asked her to join the Wardens when they reached Ostagar and she didn't hesitate in accepting. She knew it would be the best way to get at Howe and that was the only thing she could focus on now, other than Fergus... Her desire to see her older brother was wrestling with the abhorrence for having to tell him what happened, but then they reached Ostagar and the sheer intimidation of the place scattered all those thoughts from her head.

The ruin was huge and beautiful in its fractured walls and broken towers. The stones were a brilliant white underneath the grime of years; the early summer sun testified to this. From within came the sounds of an army settling and Tilly's ears pricked forward when they caught the resounding barks of other Mabari. Ffion let her hand fall to the heavy head bobbing at her waist and she felt a pang of guilt. Tilly had been so patient with her, never letting her lady out of her sight and Ffion, wrapped in her grief, had been neglecting her. With a soft, rather questioning whine, Tilly walked a little closer and Ffion spoke softly,

"Things will be better now, girl. I'm glad you're here."

They entered the ruin, the two sentries standing down as they recognized Duncan, before they spotted four men approaching. All were wearing silverite armor; the kind Fergus favored, three of them wore sets of burnished silver while the fourth was resplendent with a gold finish. There was an emblem of a dragon artfully crafted into the breastplate; an image that grew clearer with time, and a beautifully mastered long sword secured at the man's back. Ffion let out a breath as she realized it was King Cailan himself and she dropped a bow as he greeted Duncan warmly.

"Hello, it is you, Duncan," He said jovially, clasping hands with the Warden, "The scouts said it resembled you but instead of an army you were accompanied by just a sole warrior. Did something go awry?"

"One could say that, sire," Duncan answered.

Cailan frowned and spared a quick glance at Ffion who remained silent. He clearly didn't like this.

"Were Howe's men detained or were you ambushed? Come, Duncan, we depended on those soldiers, what is it?"

"Perhaps we can discuss this further in, majesty? It is not a pleasant tale."

Cailan's blue eyes flickered between them again and his brows furrowed more deeply. Knocking a short lock of blond hair away with one hand, he locked gazes with Duncan.

"We can talk on the way," He said as he stepped back slightly and cast an arm at the ruin.

It was spoken pleasantly enough, but there was no arguing with him and Duncan stole a look at Ffion's set, grim face before inclining his head and falling into step beside the king. The soldiers waited for Tilly and Ffion before forming a protective half-circle behind all four of them. Ffion remained silent as Duncan relayed Howe's attack on the castle. She vainly tried to distract herself with their surroundings but kept hearing Oriana's scream, seeing those scattered bodies, feeling Gilmore's tender caress and her parents' kisses...

"He will pay for his treachery, lady," The king's voice broke through, "I will not stand for this."

Ffion gave herself a little shake. She could feel the soldiers watching her and she inclined her head.

"Thank you. I wonder, majesty, did my brother, Ser Fergus, arrive safely?"

"He did, lady," Cailan was pleased to tell her this news. The blaze of passionate anger on his handsome face softened some and Ffion could see evidence of 'good King Cailan' in that, "Though I believe he is out scouting now."

Ffion had expected as much and in spite of wanting to see him, share the grief; she couldn't help but be relieved that it wasn't going to be right away. Not wanting any other questions on this topic, the last thing she needed was to break down in front of the king, she took the initiative.

"Are the armies prepared here, then?"

They all started walking again; heading across what had been a massive bridge. There were chunks of stone missing from the edges here and there, but the view of the Korkari Wilds to the south and the mountain ranges to the east was breathtaking. Ffion had to remind herself to listen to the king when he answered her.

"Yes, fully. We were waiting for Howe's men but that is a moot point now," Cailan's voice had become excited, "Our scouts have told us the emergence of Darkspawn is becoming more and more prominent in the southwest. They think the onslaught could come as soon as tomorrow. I confess, I thought there might have been more resistance. We have already won several skirmishes and there has been no sign of an Archdemon."

"Disappointed, sire?" Duncan asked mildly.

They had reached the other end of the bridge and stopped again at the top of a flight of steps. Ffion looked away from the amazing view to study the king. His features hardened a little but it wasn't with anger at Duncan: it was clear he was truly unhappy there was no risk of a great and terrible monster that could mean the end of life as they knew it. He was thinking about his answer and Ffion found herself fascinated by the bustling sprawl beneath her. The sight of a true army camp had never ceased to astound her and now was no exception. Men and women scurried everywhere, voices blurring together in a steady hum. Barking dogs and the crash of metal on metal broke through every now and then and the flags of nobility rustled in the gentle breeze.

"I was hoping for the old tales," Cailan finally replied, "When the armies of Ferelden and the Grey Wardens would defeat the Darkspawn and usher in a time of peace. And now... I'm not even sure this is a real Blight."

"Well, I for one hope it is not, sire," Duncan said ruefully.

"I knew you would say that, Duncan," The king chuckled, "Ah, well, if this is all it ends up being, I suppose I will have to be content. At least I am given the chance to fight alongside you. And now, I must take my leave. Loghain wanted to discuss tactics and I should go to him before he starts sending out search parties. I will keep my promise, Lady Cousland, trust me. And if I see your brother, I shall send him your way."

Ffion bowed again and the four men departed, leaving her alone with Duncan. Tilly pressed against her and she let out a questioning whine. One hand dropped to the Mabari's head as Ffion met the Warden's gaze.

"You believe this to be a Blight," She wasn't asking.

With a half smile, Duncan motioned her down the steps and fell in beside her.

"More than anything, Cailan has wanted a rule like his father's: everything from Chasind to handfuls of country loving rebels defeating hell-bent hordes," He explained and nodded to those that hailed him, "What he fails to understand is how the Blight spreads. If he did, he would be more sober about all of this. Odd attacks; Orzammar has reported quieted Deep Roads; Darkspawn are leaping from the very earth and storming villages miles apart... All of this is indicative of a coming Blight."

"And Cailan wants nothing more than to be a hero," Once more it wasn't a question and Ffion was studying her surroundings.

Tents of all colors were grouped together against available wall space and she knew from the emblem on the banners, the most luxurious ones belonged to the king and his escorts. A massive tent tucked away in a corner on its own apart from another very orderly one made her frown.

"I suppose the Chantry fought tooth and nail to keep the Circle out of this?" She questioned, recognizing the tower and clouds of the Circle of Magi on one banner and the golden sun of the Chantry on the other.

"I don't think Denerim's revered mother will ever speak to me again," Duncan used that half mocking, half serious tone and he cast her an amused smile, "Not that it would be any great loss."

He was rewarded with a mere ghost of her usual smile and a partial shrug. Her shadowed grey eyes searched the crowds and he knew she was looking for her brother, never mind Cailan's assurances he was scouting. Thinking quickly, wanting to keep her distracted, he made an offer.

"The Grey Warden camp is just to the left of Cailan's. You can go there now and rest if you like; I have some business to attend to. Or if you prefer to explore a little, seek out another Warden by the name of Alistair," He saw the flickering in her eyes that told him this was more to her liking, "If he is not at the camp, try the quartermaster. His shop is near the Chantry tent. While you're at it, see what he has for sale. Leaving so abruptly... I'm sure I gave you enough sovereigns."

"More than enough, Warden," She said rather dryly and made him smile, thinking of how she loathed accepting that purse.

"Duncan," He corrected, "You will be a sister soon and Grey Wardens lose all but their first names, remember? The only thing I ask is that you don't leave the ruin, not yet. And good luck. Alistair has a certain... talent for upsetting the wrong people."

He disappeared into the crowds and Ffion wound her way to the Warden camp. She was told Alistair had gone to the southern courtyard and was supposed to be delivering a message to one of the mages there. Heading that way, she stopped briefly at the quartermaster's when she saw she was walking right by him. She was pleased he had much more for sale than armor and weapons and proceeded to buy extra arrows, food for Tilly, changes of clothes, health poultices and flasks so she could brew her own. The array of impressive weapons she left alone. The two blades slung at her back were enough: one was the red steel short blade her father had made for her twentieth birthday and the other was the family sword that her mother thrust into her hands just before Duncan pulled her from the cellar. Her emotions had gone wild when she had discovered just what the sword meant and she had had a hard time stemming the onslaught of tears that had threatened to overcome her. But she was getting very good at pushing these sudden breaks to the back of her mind and though she knew in time it was going to catch up with her, she couldn't worry about that now.

She left the quartermaster with Tilly shadowing her and ascended a short flight of steps to the southern courtyard. There were men and women practicing here and she could see why. There was space enough to allow for both swordplay and archery and she skirted those training, looking for a mage and a soldier. Unfortunately there were plenty of both and it wasn't until she had walked the entire length of the courtyard that Tilly's ears pricked and she could hear the sound of a voice raised in anger.

"I don't care what the revered mother desires! If she can't come to tell me herself than I can't be persuaded it is something I need to know!"

"That is precisely what she wanted," Another voice answered and its tone was condescending to the point of an insult, "She had to meet with you personally and you will have to ask her why she couldn't come herself."

The other didn't seem to hear.

"And as for cornering me-"

"Cornering you? Well, yes, you were here already, but you wanted to speak apart from everyone else and I am just the messenger. You can't-"

"I am done with this conversation and I will tell the revered mother not to send you again," The voice had become quite cold and as Ffion came around one of the pillars that had long ago supported the ceiling, a mage swept by her, "Out of my way, fool!"

She almost wished Tilly would have acted and then was glad she hadn't. It would have been too much trouble, besides the soldier she now knew had to be Alistair was looking at her curiously and she smiled faintly.

"At least we're all working together," She observed.

"That's right," He agreed, "The great thing about the Blight is all the good-hearted cooperation you receive from your fellow man."

She studied him as openly as he studied her. He was tall and broad shouldered with reddish-brown hair and eyes the color of pale honey. His features were rather bold: his nose long and straight set over a broad mouth, the corners of which upturned naturally, giving him a pleasant appearance. He was smiling charmingly at her and she was surprised she took note of how handsome he was.

"You must be Alistair," She said as she realized the silence was becoming awkward, "Duncan sent me to find you."

"Whew," He replied and Ffion liked the boyish grin he gave her, "I was worried you would turn out to be another mage. You're not, are you?"

She spread her arms a little.

"Do I look like one?"

"Nope, you'll just have to excuse the paranoia of an ex-almost Templar. You're the new recruit Duncan brought with him, then?"

"Ffion," She shook his hand and debated whether or not to give her surname. Deciding against it and wondering if Alistair would keep this friendly openness, she motioned to where the hostile mage had disappeared, "And apparently he doesn't appreciate your past?"

Alistair lifted his shoulders in a shrug, his splintmail clinking with the movement. He cocked his head and considered her question before answering,

"The revered mother was trying to come up with a way to tell the Circle just how little she likes their presence here and sending an ex-Templar seemed to be the best way. Brilliant, don't you think?" He gave her a searching look but it was all curiousity, "You know, I haven't heard of many women Wardens. We have some here, of course, but all of them are mages and tend to avoid me. I wonder why there aren't more that Join."

"Perhaps because we are smart enough to avoid all this hell before it has a chance to start?" She replied and waved a hand, "We should be getting back."

Ffion started walking the length of the courtyard, intent on heading back to the Warden camp whether he came along or not. But he was already falling into step next to her and she could feel his eyes on her as they wound their way through the men and women.

"Fair enough," He agreed, "But what does that make you?"

"So damn unlucky."

This was the first time she had felt even remotely like the old Ffion and it felt good to make Alistair laugh. It was a nice sound: cheerful, like he enjoyed doing so. There was something comforting about the fact that life still went on no matter what happened elsewhere and for the first time since that night two weeks ago, there was a little lift in her heart that felt like hope.

"Sad, huh? Well, at least you aren't alone in this. There are two other recruits wandering around here somewhere, too. Only that just means we'll probably have to track them down to get things rolling. You'll still have to go through the Ritual."

"'The Ritual?'" Ffion repeated as the Warden camp came into view. Duncan had mentioned a Joining, not a Ritual, and she wondered if they were one and the same, "A very encouraging name, I have to say."

"You don't have to tell me," He responded as Duncan's fire came into view, "But that's all I can say. Top-secret Warden business. My lips are sealed."

Ffion was on the verge of asking whether he could answer a question without having to temper it with a joke, but Duncan stood in front of the campfire they approached. Two men were with him: one tall and heavily built, with dark red hair that reminded her painfully of Gilmore and the other smaller than Alistair, black haired and his lively hazel eyes were watching her with pleasure. Duncan smiled briefly at her and then leveled a look at Alistair.

"There you are," He said briskly, "Now, if you are done harassing the mages, Alistair, we will begin the Joining ritual while daylight is with us."

"The revered mother cornered me," Alistair protested and there was that boyish grin again, "What was I to do?"

"I find it difficult to believe the revered mother would instruct you to bully the Circle."

"Really?" Ffion cut in, "Things must differ here drastically from the north."

Duncan capitulated and shrugged his shoulders slightly. He caught the approving smile Alistair sent her, as well as the way the other two were watching the newest recruit. He changed the subject to get them back on track.

"Ffion, this is Daveth and Jory," He said waving first to the brunette and then the broad shouldered redhead, "Jory, Daveth, this is Ffion, another new recruit."

"And a woman," Daveth replied and still hadn't looked away from her.

Ffion's brows arched up and, on cue, Tilly growled softly. Alistair looked amused while Jory and Duncan were both a little annoyed.

"It would seem so," She answered with a brief glance down at her body. Her grey eyes went back to Duncan and she made it clear she was dismissing Daveth completely, "What does the Joining entail, exactly?"

The Warden was pleased with her tactics and followed to keep them on this topic.

"Alistair will be leading you into the Wilds where you will gather vials of Darkspawn blood," He said, looking around at each of them to gauge their reactions, "Also I'd like you to search the ruins just to the west. There used to be a Grey Warden fortress in these parts years ago and some valuable papers had been stored in one of the towers. It may be fruitless, but I want to know either way."

"Papers?" Ffion questioned, her curiousity getting the better of her, "What kind of papers?"

"Old treaties, if you want to know," Duncan replied and then glanced at Alistair, "If you're ready, Alistair, you should start now and be back before nightfall."

Alistair found himself watching the newest recruit with interest. He had been a Grey Warden for a little more than six months and the other women Wardens were all older than him. There had been only men in the group that Joined with him and he was curious to see how a woman would deal with what had to be done. She and her dog had fallen in behind the others as a sort of rearguard when they left Ostagar and the Mabari was like her second shadow. She looked at their surroundings with interest and the few times he met her gaze, she would give him a half smile. There was something about her grey eyes and the smile that was sad and haunted and it made him want to make her really, genuinely, laugh.

Ffion, in her turn, felt the men's scrutiny, Alistair's more than the others'. Daveth was still leering at her and Jory was wondering just what good a woman would be out here, she was sure. She could feel his doubt and didn't let it bother her in the least. She was used to having to prove herself to the Cousland soldiers and she didn't expect this to be much different.

They had not gone far before they came across the ruins of a few overturned carts and the scattered bodies of men and monsters that could only be the Darkspawn. Ffion forgot her grief and heavy heart to look over these creatures with great interest. She had only read of them in books and nothing prepared her for the sight of them. Their skin was dark grey and grimy, wrinkled deeply, and the few eyes that were open were red or yellow. Tilly was sniffing amongst them with distaste and suddenly she growled and snarled softly. Ffion moved to her instinctively, hoping none of the men tried to stop the Mabari. She didn't feel like dealing with missing fingers. The dog was lowering her heavy head and her ears folded back. One of the first human bodies they passed stirred and he was groaning. Ffion called to Alistair, settling on her heels next to the wounded man to keep Tilly at bay.

"What happened here?" Alistair questioned, crouching beside her and reaching out to steady the soldier as he tried to sit up.

Ffion wordlessly handed a health poultice over and watched as he tended the man's wounds. They weren't too severe and the soldier was more scared than anything else. He described the massacre in a shaking voice,

"We were making for Ostagar last night when they came from... everywhere, from the ground and we... we were outnumbered. Some of the men made a break for the ruin to get help, but they... didn't make it. I was hit on the head then and I don't remember much more," His eyes went around rather frantically and he was stronger now after Alistair's ministrations, "I have to get to Ostagar. The commanders need to know what happened and I won't sit around like... like a lamb waiting for the slaughter. If you were wise, you'd come with me and if not... Maker go with you."

The soldier got to his feet gingerly and hurried back the way they had come. Ffion watched him go, feeling faintly disgusted with the man's cowardice. The sound of Jory's uncertain voice drew her attention and she caught Alistair's gaze momentarily. He clearly shared her thoughts and he gave her another lopsided, boyish grin as they got to their feet.

"Well, then what is there to hope for?" Jory was saying and his brown eyes looked much like the other soldier's had.

"Jory," Alistair began soothingly.

"They had a whole troop and we are only four," The other continued, "How can we expect to make it back alive?"

"Because I'm here," Alistair was not being arrogant; there was no conceit in his voice. He was simply stating a fact, "Grey Wardens are able to sense the Darkspawn so they will not be able to surprise us as they did these men."

"So you see, knight," Daveth cut in brightly and his hazel eyes danced, "We'll at least have some warning before we die."

Jory seemed a little convinced when Alistair chuckled with an affirmative wave at Daveth and Ffion smiled. But he still had to get the last word in.

"That doesn't set my heart at ease and I'm more inclined to side with the soldier after seeing all of this," His arms spread to indicate the carnage and he added gloomily, "This isn't encouraging."

"Ser Jory," Ffion said softly and heard her voice taking on that same edge her mother's used to when someone tried to pull the wool over her eyes, "Duncan would not have sent us out here if there was a chance we wouldn't return. Besides, there's the start of the ruins he was talking about. We won't even be out of sight of the watchmen."

Alistair agreed again but his face lost that jovial expression. Instead, his whole stance had become a little rigid and his honey colored eyes lit with the aspect of battle.

"Ffion's right," He said absentmindedly, "And here's my chance to prove it. Prepare yourselves, something's ahead."

Ffion instantly loosed her bow from her back and shifted the swords and quiver within easy reach. They pressed on and the men were jockeying her behind them. Not that she minded. This way it would be much easier for her to take out the threats with her bow and not risk the others in friendly fire. They slowly rounded a knoll and a fierce snarl greeted them. The lowland they entered was suddenly teeming with a dozen of the ugly Darkspawn that really did seem to spring from the ground. The nearest was a mere ten yards from them and Ffion took it out before the men could even blink. Alistair recovered and was shouting orders,

"Ffion, the archers and the Emissary!" He hollered as he set his shield, "Jory and Daveth, with me! Take out the biggest threats first!"

She didn't need to be told twice. The fletching of her arrow tickled her cheek as she took out a lone archer some thirty yards away and the second was dropped a moment later. Tilly brought down a particularly vicious creature that was making its way at her lady and Ffion couldn't have been more thankful. She sidestepped a little and aimed for what Alistair had called the Emissary. It was a hulking thing that had come partway down the hillside across from them, moving within range to fire spells at their party. The men were holding their own with the last half dozen Darkspawn and she concentrated on the Emissary that was bobbing around so much, she didn't have a clean shot.

Alistair moved gracefully, ducking underneath the well-aimed blow from a Hurlock and straightening again to mercilessly cut it down. His eyes landed on Ffion who seemed frozen in the process of shooting the Emissary and hollered her name, to name avail. Cursing roundly under his breath, dodging the spell flung at them and taking out the Genlock coming at him, he bolted for the Emissary, intent on killing it himself. Something buzzed past his ear as he did so, just grazing his cheek and a second later the Emissary was down, a red fletched arrow piercing its eye. He quickly turned back to the party to see Ffion drop the bow at her feet and pull her short blades loose. She leaped at the Hurlock that was besting Daveth, the blades flashing in the sunlight and a moment later, the monster was on the ground at her feet, headless. Her expression was one of such vindictive pleasure as she looked down on it that he found himself praying he never ended up on her bad side. Jory took out the last monster and Alistair returned to them.

Ffion bent and wiped the Darkspawn blood off on the grass like it was a common occurrence and didn't stop to think about the magnitude of what she had seen and taken part in. Daveth was heaping thanks on her and she waved him off impatiently.

"Don't worry about it," She interrupted and glanced at Alistair while Tilly cantered about happily, pleased with herself, "We are meant to look after each other, right? So leave it at that. Do you have any empty vials, Alistair?"

"Um, oh yeah, of course," He fumbled at his belt and handed over a small glass vial with a cork stopper, "We just have to fill three of these. One for each, in other words. And, Ffion, I know you probably had your own reasons for hesitating, but next time I ask you to shoot-"

"It kept moving," She interrupted as she crouched and sliced open the wrist of the Hurlock she had killed. Deep red, near black, blood was slowly dripping into the vial, "I needed it to hold still to get a clear shot and you gave me that chance."

Alistair blinked, not expecting that. He had never understood how archers managed and knew he couldn't berate her now. Not when she proved she knew precisely what she was doing. He remained at a loss but she didn't need his answer. Jory and Daveth were moving amongst the other dead and she got to her feet to join them but not before adding,

"Although next time, Alistair, if you want to play bait and run the risk of friendly fire, don't let me stop you."

He was instantly amused but wasn't given the chance to respond. They had finished gathering what they could of the Darkspawn blood and Alistair wordlessly motioned them forward. His expression told them what to expect and no sooner did they round a second knoll and cross a worn bridge to the feet of the ruins did more Darkspawn appear. This next wave was larger than the first and Ffion wasted no time in taking out the three archers and two Emissaries that lorded over the rest. The men made quick work of the others, moving together as though they had been doing this for years. Tilly had the distinction of bringing down the last monster and the vials of blood were easily topped off. Alistair assured them of safety and they ventured further into the ruins.

Ffion and Tilly wandered a little apart from the men and Ffion studied the broken walls and crumbling stairs. The Wilds were gradually creeping in, taking back what had been theirs. Ivy grew thick on the remaining walls and most of the massive flagstones were gone. She could hear the voices of the men close by and ducked into the dilapidated remnants of a tower. It was the type of room that was usually hidden beneath the tower steps, but all that was left were short sections of wall and heaps of rocks that had recently been sifted. There was a quick gleam of sunlight off varnished wood and Ffion stepped closer, pulling a few stones loose to look more closely and calling to Alistair. Sure enough it was a chest and, to her dismay, she saw that it had already been ransacked. She glanced up at Alistair as he stepped over a section of wall and stopped next to her.

"We were too late," She observed and studied the sun as it lowered in the sky, "Or do you think there is a second cache?"

Alistair crouched, moving more stones and examining what was left of the chest. Jory and Daveth stood just outside the tower, speaking quietly, and Ffion frowned down at Tilly when the dog pressed close. There was a static humming as a swarm of insects passed within a few yards and disappeared into the bushes. Tilly's brown eyes followed them distrustfully and she hampered Ffion's legs as she turned back to Alistair when he spoke,

"No, this is it. See there?" He pointed to a faint engraving of a griffon in the face of the chest, "That griffon? That's the Wardens' symbol. Duncan was right, this was a lost cause."

"Well, well, well, what manner of vultures are these?" A new voice said and Ffion had to grab Tilly's collar to prevent her from charging, "Strange birds that cause chaos instead of pursue it. Tell me, birds, what do you mean by disrupting the peace in my woods?"

The men reacted instantly, drawing their blades and leaping to attention. Jory and Daveth pressed up next to Alistair, once more jockeying Ffion behind them as a woman stepped out from the bushes where the insects had disappeared. She was tall for a woman with black hair piled up in a bun at the back of her head. Her face was angular: cheekbones stood proud under wide eyes and her lips were full and voluptuous over her sharp chin. She watched them with an arrogant expression, one perfect brow lifted and her arms crossed over her chest. This particular move drew attention to her interesting garb and Ffion was worried... something was going to be exposed. Heavy folds of deep purple criss-crossed her chest and were secured around her slender waist, leaving little to the imagination. Her leggings and boots were both black and her belt heavy with pouches of all sizes. The worn staff slung at her back made Alistair stiffen and he spoke without looking away from her,

"Take care of her, Ffion. She's a witch."

His cold voice was unforgiving and Daveth and Jory's expressions became more than a little frightened. Ffion realized the magnitude of this news and though there was a quick stab of apprehension, she didn't act on it. Mages outside the Circle were not good news, but there was nothing about this woman that would call for that drastic a measure. She found herself studying the witch with interest and saw that her strange yellow eyes were fixed on Alistair in annoyance. To prevent either one of them acting on their distrust, Ffion dropped the hand on her bow to the top of Tilly's head and replied mildly,

"I'm not about to shoot an unarmed woman, no matter what she might be."

The witch's gaze flashed to her and there was a sudden kinship between them as they both stood up to the bullheaded men.

"'Unarmed'?" Alistair repeated, "Ffion, she's a witch, a Chasind, and she would cut us down without flinching if she had a chance."

"She's already had her chance," Ffion argued and met the witch's gaze again, "Several times, no doubt, and didn't act. I'll trust that. We are Grey Warden recruits, lady, with the army at Ostagar. I'm Ffion and these are Alistair, Jory, and Daveth."

The witch seemed amused and rather flattered at Ffion's politeness.

"'Tis an odd place to find such manners," She observed and uncrossed her arms to give them a short bow; "You may call me Morrigan. But you have not entirely answered my question. Why would Grey Wardens take sudden interest in a ruin abandoned centuries ago? Vultures you are, swooping for prey that has already been devoured."

"I would rather do the swooping," Alistair's voice dripped with sarcasm, "In any other circumstance, swooping would be bad."

Before Morrigan could reply or Ffion mediate, Daveth added his two bits, his voice shaking with fear,

"Be careful. If she's a witch and we make her angry, she'll turn us all into toads or worse."

"Quit being ridiculous," Ffion replied sharply, not in the least bit patient with them anymore. Her grey eyes went back to Morrigan, "'Already been devoured?' So the treaties are gone then?"

At the witch's curt nod, Alistair exploded.

"You stole them!" He exclaimed, "Swooping down where you don't belong and taking what wasn't yours! You... you sneaking... witch-thief!"

Morrigan's eyebrows were dangerously close to disappearing into her hair and even Ffion had to glance questioningly at the ex-Templar. He had seemed so levelheaded and collected when they first met and now he wasn't much better than Daveth.

"Now who is swooping where they do not belong?" Morrigan's yellow eyes glinted dangerously, "If you do not watch your feet, Warden, someone may cut them from under you. It was not me who took your papers, 'twas my mother."

"Is it possible to speak with her?" Ffion asked without much hope.

It wasn't her place to take that initiative and Alistair was quick to point this out.

"Now wait a minute, Ffion," He interrupted shortly, "We're not about to follow a Chasind into Maker knows where."

"Duncan wanted these treaties and we have a chance to retrieve them," She answered easily with enviable calm, "Besides, there doesn't have to be a we. If you like, you can wait here and Tilly and I will be back."

Morrigan watched the colors change in Alistair's face as his eyes flashed and she grinned wickedly.

"I like you, Warden," She said to Ffion and turned back to the woods with a quick motion of one hand, "I will show you the way to my mother and you can ask her for your treaties."

Ffion and Tilly followed after her without another glance. Grudgingly, wanting nothing more than to give the new recruit a piece of his mind, Alistair gestured to the others and fell in behind the women.

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