Shades of Grey and Black

Restoring an Arl, Keeping a Promise, and Breaking Up and Making Up

Ffion pulled the heavy folds of the cloak closer to her neck and hunched towards the fire. The trip down the Frostbacks was cold and miserable, but the people of Haven had not given them trouble. The first night they made camp early, having traveled through the previous night, and now they were coming closer to the foothills. Ffion had been surprised to realize that summer was starting to draw to a close. She had been so wrapped up in everything else that it was somehow strange to discover that life was still going on as usual around them.

And now, she was sitting her watch, the medallion she had picked up on the Gauntlet clasped between her palms. She studied the pearly surface, waiting for those glimpses of her family's features and heartsick when nothing appeared. It had been this way since they left Andraste's urn and she wondered if it was her last foolish thought that had driven the magic from the medallion. She closed it in one fist and pressed it against her forehead, hearing her father's words again, and wishing that the pain would recede to the dull throb that it had been before they ventured to Haven and the temple. And knowing that the Guardian and Sten had both been right, knowing that she could only heal when she was willing to let the deaths go, was just crushing her heart to nothing. It might be giving her the strength to face off with the bastard Howe, but at what cost to her own health?

"Rinna," A honeyed voice said and Zevran dropped beside her, extending a flask of wine.

Ffion looked up at him in surprise, dropping her hands to her lap.

"What?" She asked and heard the emotion in her tone.

"Her name was Rinna," The Elf repeated and his amber eyes were on the fire, "That Guardian dug deep within all of us, yes? And he asked me about my killings and started on one in particular. That was Rinna."

"I don't understand," She said slowly, still trying to pull herself from those morose thoughts, "Why are you telling me this?"

His eyes met hers and they were serious again for one of a handful of times that she had ever seen.

"You looked like you needed a distraction," He told her, his shoulder brushing hers as he reached for a long limb and began poking at the fire, "That chasm the Guardian opened is terrifying, yes? I will help you step back from its ledge."

Ffion blinked at him, her lips parting.

"It's really that obvious, huh?" She asked wryly.

"My dear innocent, I truly believe you couldn't hide anything from us," The Elf answered and smiled gently at her. The firelight was gleaming off her chocolate hair and shadowing the clear grey eyes that were so striking in her small face. Her full lips looked so soft and inviting, it took almost all of his willpower to keep from leaning over and finding out for himself. Instead he turned back to the flames and started speaking in a smooth voice whose cadence would rival Leliana's, "Rinna came to the Crows the year before I was sent here to take care of you Wardens. She was an orphaned city Elf and every inch the street urchin. I became... enamored of her and took her under my wing. She was so eager to prove herself and was a very quick learner and soon it was so much more than a mentor and protégé relationship. We became lovers and I do not remember ever feeling that way about anyone. There had always been trysts, of course, and naturally one must be a very good actor to be an assassin. Sex was cheap in the Crows and just another weapon; a fact that I had always known and was to later find a brutal truth," He paused in the story as the log he pushed against collapsed and sent sparks shooting into the frigid air. Ffion was studying his profile avidly and she was struck by the hard lines that had always before been creased in a wicked grin or delighted laughter, "My other partner in our work and sometimes lover, Taliesen... A man, which should come as no surprise to you now; found us an assignment that would give Rinna a chance to prove herself in the ranks. I was quick to accept it and told Taliesen that I would be taking her along. At the time I did not see any dissatisfaction in him, though it had to have been present. I was so blinded by my desire to see Rinna do well that nothing else mattered. We arranged for the contract to be initiated and everything went in our favor that night until we had to send Rinna ahead to reconnaissance. Taliesen waited until that moment to tell me that Rinna was not what she seemed. According to him, she had been plotting against the Crows for months, a trespass payable only with death, and was unveiling her final betrayal that night, with us. It made so much sense to me; it was a Crow move, make no mistake about that, and when Rinna returned to our checkpoint, Taliesen confronted her. She denied the accusations, of course, and looked to me to help her... I refused," Zevran let out a sigh and for the second time, there was no humor in his face, and the usually bright amber eyes held a frightening darkness, "I stood aside, mocking her pleas, and allowing Taliesen to torment her before he slit her throat... Gods forgive me, I even spat on her as she lay in a pool of her blood. I was so angry about her betrayal that there was no room in my heart for any other emotions. Taliesen and I finished the contract and returned to the Crows, where I found out the truth... Rinna was not the traitor, she had been completely innocent, and I had mocked, spat on, and damned her... Quite possibly the only woman I have ever truly loved. It would have been so easy to retire from the Crows so long as she was by my side, and when I demanded that my superiors find the real traitor, I was told in no uncertain terms that one Crow, so low on the ladder, was not worth their efforts. Even Taliesen, my dear friend," He sneered the word, his voice sarcastic again but in the same dark way of his eyes, "He was merely happy to have me to himself again and I could not talk to him about the episode either. In his own words, it was 'good riddance to the bitch for standing in the way.' I did try to return to the field, but I saw Rinna in each contract, and when I heard that there was a price on the head of the Wardens, I saw this as an ultimate escape. Facing off with the best warriors in Ferelden is a surefire way to kill oneself and what happens? I am shown mercy," He smiled wryly at her, his eyes starting to dance again like they should, "Is that not ironic? I left Antiva because of a woman and now am tied to Ferelden because of one. You agree, my dear?"

Ffion's cheeks were flushed, but by her shining eyes, it was clear that she was touched by his loyalty. She leaned towards him, not noting how his eyes widened with surprise, and put one arm around his neck, kissing his cheek. She embraced him briefly, smelling his leather armor and the odd, almost minty wash that he used on his skin. He was completely still for a moment, struck by the innocence that existed in this rather ruthless little woman, and then he wrapped one arm around her waist and hugged her back. His cheek pressed against her silky hair and he closed his eyes as he inhaled her scent, his fingers unconsciously tightening on her. Rinna was indeed a woman that he loved and he found himself starting down that path once more with Ffion, his lover's alter-ego in so many ways, and Alistair be damned. But it was quite clear that Ffion felt more for the ex-Templar than even she knew and he wasn't about to stand in the way of her happiness. She pulled away and he reluctantly let his hand slide from her waist. It rested somewhat heavily against her hip and she didn't seem to notice as she smiled at him.

"I'm not wearing an apron, Zevran, there are no strings tying you to Ferelden," She replied softly and it took everything within him to keep from kissing her senseless, "And all I can say about Rinna is what you and Sten both told me. You can only heal when you can let go. You've guessed enough about my life from what I've said and what you've observed and... I know that you won't rest easy until you have revenge, not with that passion in your voice, and I have been able to give you your chance. I don't think you should waste it."

Zevran cocked his head at her, drumming his fingers on her hip a little until she looked embarrassed. He left her alone and instead grabbed the flask of wine and took a swig, which made her grin.

"And you cannot follow your own advice because...?"

She flushed again, this time more in shame, and dropped her gaze. Lifting her shoulders in a shrug, she focused her attention on the medallion that she had forgotten was clasped in her hand and answered slowly.

"I'm trying... Without immediate vengeance it's difficult to just drop it, but I..." She trailed off with a sharp gasp and was suddenly gazing down at the medallion eagerly. There it was, just that quick flash, and a feeling of peace settled over her. Her eyes went back to his and she pressed the medallion to her heart, "But I'm trying. Nothing will be perfect until my family is avenged, and if it takes a little while longer than I want... Well, so be it. I'll manage."

They returned to Redcliffe in the early morning six days after departing Haven, and entered the village hailed as heroes by those that were up and starting their day. The people remembered well their timely arrival and help in saving them, and Teagan couldn't stop beaming when he saw Alistair and Ffion leading the way. He caught the ex-Templar in a brotherly embrace and pressed Ffion's hand before turning the pouch of ashes over to Gaile and the castle's healer. They had been reading up on how to use the ashes and Genitivi had sent copies of all the documentation that he believed might prove useful. Which in the end, was about the best thing anyone could have done. Gaile and the healer were meticulous with their brewing of the potion and Wynne lent her own expertise as well. Alistair asked if he could be in the room when they brought Eamon back and Teagan was more than happy to allow this. Ffion and the rest stood down and took the opportunity to enjoy real furnishings and hot baths. Recalling the Arl ended up being an all-day ordeal and when he finally opened his eyes, the healers left the family alone to reunite in private.

Ffion was stretched across a couch in the library, actually having time to read for the first time in weeks, with Tilly sprawled on the flagstones beside her and third glass of wine in hand, when Valena appeared in the doorway. Her green eyes were bright with happiness and she smiled broadly when the Warden met her gaze.

"It's done, Warden," The girl said, "And the Bann is asking for you."

Ffion set the goblet aside and marked her place in the book, well aware of how ridiculous that was considering she probably wouldn't be coming back to it. She got to her feet, Tilly beside her, and followed Valena out of the room. She could smell the wonderful supper that was still being picked over, mostly by her own companions, and she found herself missing this life terribly. Despite her ease of slipping into the 'roughing it' life, she was still the daughter of a nobleman and she was used to having any whims answered, sleeping in a real bed, and having hot baths ready within moments. She felt fairly justified in missing that.

The girl led her up to the private quarters and she knocked briefly on one of the doors before admitting the Warden and her hound. This was a sitting room and office in one and the big windows looked to the south and west, sure to flood the room with sunlight during the day. Teagan leaned against the big desk beside Alistair, both of whom smiled at her, and Isolde beamed from her perch on the arm of her husband's chair. One of her hands grasped his as though he would disappear if she let go and Ffion turned her attention to the Arl. He was a very distinguished looking man with a strongly featured face and piercing blue eyes. His illness and comatose existence had taken its toll; his face was thin and pale, and his hair had turned from its dark reddish brown to a silver-grey. His lined face creased in a smile when he looked at her and Ffion saw the man that she last met when she was seven years old and furious with Gilmore for dipping the end of her braid in his ink jar...

"Warden Ffion," His pleasant voice said and he beckoned her closer, "Redcliffe is in your debt and I owe you my life. Whatever we can do for you, you need only ask."

"Thank you, my lord," She replied with a slight bow and then got right to the root of their problem, "What we need help with is Loghain. I'm sure Alistair mentioned that we have the support of the Dwarves and the Circle, but if Denerim is lost to us..." She spread her hands, "It won't mean anything."

The Arl nodded his head in agreement, his blue eyes rather distant as he thought that over.

"I agree," He said finally, "Teagan and Alistair have both been filling me in on your adventures and Loghain's most current atrocities. What we need is someone with a stronger claim on Maric's throne than the general and Anora."

Silence fell over the room and Ffion had to fight to keep from looking at Alistair. As it turned out, no one had to make the Arl's words any clearer. The desk creaked a little as the ex-Templar pushed away from it and stood straight. His honey eyes were wide with disbelief and he glanced around at all of them before he started arguing.

"You can't mean... me?" He said slowly, "No, no, no way. I never wanted Maric's throne, never wanted anything to do with him. He ignored me and I was able to do what I wanted with my life. It worked for both of us. No, I would be horrible and-"

"Don't be ridiculous, Alistair," Ffion cut in, her annoyance spiking, "It's not like your uncle's going to stick you in your father's place and then desert you."

Alistair looked at her in startled surprise.

"You're on their side?" He asked and then his face flushed with anger, "I told you who my father was because I thought you were the one person who would understand how I felt. That was a mistake."

"Alistair," Eamon's quiet voice had such a note of inbred command that it was not to be ignored and the ex-Templar winced at the disappointment in his uncle's face. The Arl got to his feet, waving for his wife to stay seated, "Even if Ffion had been plotting this all along there is no need to berate her for it. She is trying to do what she believes right and I agree with her. You are not the first member of royalty that has been resistant to the idea of inheriting a throne and I'm afraid there's no way around this."

Alistair threw his hands up in frustration, more angry than Ffion had ever seen him, and that included their horrible argument in the Deep Roads.

"Yes, there is," He replied sharply, "I just won't-"

"Alistair, it's going to happen," Ffion interrupted in a tone to match his and didn't shy away from his dark glare, "Teagan and I decided that this would be the best course to take before we left for Orzammar. And now that the Arl is back to us, we can set things into motion. He's the best one to take care of the logistics of this."

The ex-Templar dropped his hands and just that quickly, his anger went from blazing hot to pure ice. He drew himself up and if Ffion hadn't been so annoyed, she would have felt bad that she was causing him so much grief. But her frustration matched his and she had learned long ago that she was a hundred times more stubborn when she was worn out like she was now.

"So you have my life all neatly planned out, do you?" Alistair shook his head as his gaze went around the room, "And my future is tied up with a neat bow, that's great. I guess I should be thanking you for giving me this opportunity to make an absolute ass of myself and drive Ferelden into deeper trouble than she's already in."

Ffion rolled her eyes, unable to help it. She was not one to condone self-pity and she wasn't going to start now, no matter how much Alistair was coming to mean to her. She gave Teagan a small shrug and spread her hands, wanting to get out and away from this situation before she truly lost it.

"Self-pity doesn't become you, Alistair," She told him bluntly and saw how his eyes flickered with something akin to uncertainty, "And I'm only making this situation worse. I've had my say; you know how I feel, so I'll leave you with the Arl and Teagan to figure out the details. Besides, I need some fresh air and I have a promise to keep."

She turned about on her heel and left the room before anyone could say anything else. She wasn't sure why she had decided to go after Sten's lost sword now, but she became a little unpredictable when she was drinking and this was a good distraction for her, so she sought out the Qunari. He was just leaving the dining hall and though he didn't smile at her, his violet eyes were still as kind has they had been since their experience in the temple.

"Come on, Sten," She said shortly, "Let's go for a walk."

He frowned down at her as he fell into step beside her, Tilly trailing them. He still couldn't figure out this little woman, every time he thought he was gaining ground; she would confuse and thwart him again.

"A walk?" He asked as she threw the main door open, nodding to the guards, and started down the road towards the village, "Why now?"

"I have a promise to keep and Alistair is pissed off with me," She answered with her usual blunt honesty, taking in the sounds of the evening, "What was the bastard's name? Din, Dim...? Oh, right, Dwyn! We'll track him down and get your sword back."

Sten almost stopped walking as his brows shot up and he couldn't conceal his surprise. Another point to the Warden.

"Have you been drinking?" He asked, not sure he wanted to hear the answer, but wondering if that was her motivation this time.

"Naturally," Again she was prompt with her response and then she grinned up at him, "Sorry, couldn't resist. My mother would be horrified to hear me talk like this, but I spent way too much time with my brother and best friend... More time than she liked and, well, my language suffered. Don't worry, Sten, I'm not drunk. Just angry and frustrated enough to... let go a little."

He looked down at her with an entirely unreadable expression and then he gave her nod. They were heading down the hill into town and he couldn't help but like the Warden a little bit more.

"Understood," He replied finally, "So, where do we start looking for this... bastard, was it?"

She grinned, her cheek dimpling.

"Valena said he lives down off the docks," She said as they skirted the Chantry and headed towards the lake shore, "I'm pretty sure it's the third house down the alley here."

They found the house with little trouble, but when they knocked, the inhabitants were less than inclined to open the door.

"Look, if this is Dwyn, we have some business to discuss," Ffion called through the door, "It's about a sword that you have for sale."

There was a brief silence and then the sound of a tankard hitting the table and footsteps on the wooden floor. The door was pulled open a crack and a red headed Dwarf appeared. His hair was much darker than Oghren's, but his bleary eyes told them that he was enjoying the same affair with alcohol that their Dwarf enjoyed.

"What the hell are you talking about?" He asked, his voice more cultured than they expected.

"I was told, outside of Orzammar of all places, that you bought a Qunari sword off of one of the merchants there and might have it for sale," Ffion answered his question as though they were discussing the weather and not standing in the dark evening outside a shabby little dockside home with the owner glaring malevolently at her, "I'd like to see it, please."

Dwyn's brows shot up and they saw that the two men seated at the table behind him were getting to their feet. It seemed that this Dwarf had enough trouble in his life that he felt he needed extra help. His hazel eyes were amused and annoyed in the same instant and he started pushing the door closed.

"I don't know where you heard that story, woman, but you're talking shit to me," He said gruffly, "I don't have any blades for sale, Qunari or otherwise. Go pester someone else."

Sten put one hand out, stopping the door without an effort, and making the Dwarf look up at him in alarm.

"The sword is Asala, it is mine, and if it is not returned, I am ripping the door off the hinges," He responded; rather calmly for him.

Dwyn had had enough alcohol to feel genuine trepidation about this Qunari doing exactly what he claimed. Tilly growled softly and Ffion's knives flipped into her palms without a sound. Even though it would be three against three, Dwyn and his companions had been drinking much more than Sten and Ffion and there was no doubt that the fight would be in their favor.

"I'd listen to him," The Warden said cheerfully, "He doesn't have much patience and when he loses his temper here, your arms will be joining your door."

The Dwarf hesitated a moment longer and then waved to one of his men in surrender. Sten hadn't lifted his hand from the door and Dwyn didn't seem to want to leave it unprotected. The man he motioned to disappeared briefly, which made Ffion a little nervous, but he returned only with a huge, sheathed sword which he handed over to Dwyn. He grasped it firmly for a moment, looking up at Sten as some of his trepidation eased.

"I can't just hand it over to you," He said reluctantly, "I mean, it's not like I got it for free and - hey!"

Sten plucked it from his hands and stepped away from the door as Ffion slipped one knife away and tossed the Dwarf a little coin bag. He caught it nimbly and the Warden gave him a mock bow.

"Thanks for cooperating," She said and turned without another word.

Sten fell in beside her, the sword held lovingly in both hands.

"You should not have paid for it," He told her abruptly, "It is my property and since I am not dead, it belonged with me once more."

"There were only three sovereigns in that bag," The Warden answered, half expecting to hear angry voices trail after them, "That's the beauty of not counting out the coins in plain sight. Asala, huh? It's pretty, what does it mean?"

The Qunari realized he would just have to get used to Ffion's surprises and he was so thrilled to have his sword back in his hands that nothing really mattered anymore, for now. He wrapped one huge hand around the hilt and sighed with relief when it still fit him perfectly.

"Roughly translated, it means soul," He responded, "It was crafted to fit into my hand and no one else's. Ffion, I believe it is time to tell you how I lost Asala. I have already explained that I came as vanguard and we were tasked with investigating the Blight. The Darkspawn attacked my company near Lake Calenhad and I was the sole survivor. My rescuers were farmers that lived some miles from the Tower and when I awoke without Asala and without my brothers, I panicked. You have seen my temper and I simply... snapped. The Guardian did not lie; a family was slaughtered, and that was my doing. I am not making excuses and I never will. I did fail my people, I live with the regret of killing those innocents and I turned myself in, fully expecting to die in agony. What choice did I have? And then you came along and... And like with the Elf and those people in the Tower, you showed me a mercy that I neither deserved nor will ever be able to repay. There, you have your answer, and I hope that... Well, never mind. You have always pressed until you have found the truth and no one has been able to sway you completely. I respect this and enjoy that there is at least one constant in my life now."

Ffion was looking up at him, expressionless. She blinked as she realized that they had stopped walking and started forward again before answering.

"Alistair said we became a collection agency for crazies," She finally said slowly, "But I think it's more for unfortunates and... well, criminals. Not that I mind. I mean, during a time of war you need all the help you can find and if you have to raid the prisons, you have to raid the prisons. Honestly, Sten, I don't think any less of you. Even with your desire for a punishment, anyone would leap at the chance of freedom. Ask any but the most deranged masochists and you'd find I'm right. If you find your retribution, or your means of repaying Ferelden for what was taken from her, I will just be pleased that I could help my country."

They were climbing back up to the short road that led to the castle's draw bridge. Sten looked down at her in absolute wonder, for the first time in his life questioning his peoples' teaching on the intelligence of the human race and the role of women in particular. A little voice in his head was telling him that Ffion was the type to find a way to be the exception to every rule, but he ignored that. There was no way that someone with her inherent compassion for others and tendency to leap without looking in defense for the underdog would spend her time coming up with a way around every conceivable situation that would ever arise.

"You, Ffion the Warden, are quite the woman," He said at last, speaking slowly. He wasn't used to complimentary speech and it was made worse when she looked up at him with a smile, "I keep trying to find a way to disagree with your principles and you make it more and more difficult. It's most frustrating."

She chuckled, prodding him with an elbow. They were crossing into the castle courtyard and starting up the flight of steps to the main door. The soldiers posted at either side saluted them and one stepped forward to open the castle to them.

"I keep my promises and delight in being a mass of contradictions. That should help you understand a little bit better... maybe. Oh, and I do have one more question to ask you, since you're in a... better mood, I guess," She ignored the way he tried to cool his previous warmth and darken his violet eyes, "You called me 'kadan' in Andraste's temple. I know some Qunari words; curses, again thanks to my brother and Gil - my best friend, but I've never heard that. Can I ask what it means?"

Sten thought that over, looking at the sword clasped in both hands before he nodded and met the Warden's gaze squarely.

"There is no word in the common tongue for it," He answered, still speaking deliberately as though he was afraid he would use the wrong word, "The rough translation of it means 'dear to the heart.' It is a word that is used among brothers and sisters in blood and in duty. You fit into the latter and your conduct in the Gauntlet was unmatched. I am proud to call you thus."

Ffion's smile turned gentle and she touched his arm briefly.

"You'll be okay, Sten," She told him, "You made your mistakes, like us all, but... you'll be fine. Now, I'm going to bed and I'll see you in the morning. Good night."

"Good night," He replied and then added as she started through the hall towards the stairs that led to the second floor, "And, Ffion, my thanks. My very deep and grateful thanks."

Eamon and Teagan were still trying to make Alistair see their side of the issue the next afternoon even after they spent most of the night arguing. The ex-Templar was putting up a fight and though they were slowly gaining ground, it was a steep, uphill battle. He was polite but cool towards Ffion and the Warden felt the sting though she tried to shrug it off. Alistair had been her partner in this from the moment it started and they shared a bond that she couldn't hope to have with her other companions. The taint that was coursing through both their veins would forever link them, no matter what else might happen, and not being able to talk to him with the ease they always shared was more of a loss than she would have believed it to be.

Luckily for her, the awkward pauses at the supper table didn't last long. One of Eamon's soldiers approached their end of the table and Alistair's annoyed curse was drowned out by the crude joke Zevran was muttering in Ffion's ear as a way to pull her from that encroaching ledge. It cropped up so often throughout the day and he was worried he was going to run out of those lewd jokes that called her back before she toppled into the abyss. Maybe he'd just have to put his head together with Oghren's and see what the Dwarf's arsenal held... The Warden laughed out loud, shoving his shoulder as the guard stood patiently to one side.

"That's awful," Ffion scolded even with that dimpling grin and dancing grey eyes, "There's no way-"

"They can wait," Alistair's voice was even more cross as jealousy shot through him. His honey eyes were on the soldier, "I want to finish eating first."

"I'm sorry, Warden Alistair," The man said slowly, a little bit fazed at the ex-Templar's sharp voice but too professional to allow it to really show, "But the Arl was asking for Warden Ffion. If you're available, serah?"

Ffion was surprised at this and she glanced at Alistair briefly before downing the last of her wine and getting to her feet. Tilly immediately left Wynne's side of the table where she had been getting little bits of pork and was at her lady's side.

"Sure," She answered.

The guard led the way up to the office room that she had been summoned to the night before, but this time it was only Eamon waiting for her. He sat behind that large imposing desk but he looked up with the same warm smile as she was announced. She gave him a little bow and waited until he finished with his writing.

"You must be wondering why I asked just you to come up here," He wasn't asking and his blue eyes met hers as he sealed the letter he finished.

"Well, yeah, a little," She paced to the desk, Tilly snuffling around the corners of the room.

The Arl sat back in his chair and surveyed her with an intensity that made her feel more self-conscious than she had for some time. His eyes seemed to pierce right through her and her heart sank a little as she realized what was going on.

"Alistair doesn't know who you are, does he?" Eamon finally asked, confirming Ffion's suspicions.

The Warden's hands tightened in front of her and her grey eyes didn't drop from his. She parted her lips, prepared to deny this, to play dumb, and something made her stop. This man had been a friend and ally of her father's, had always been loyal to Ferelden and her people, couldn't she return the favor? The medallion was resting against her chest and it seemed to warm as the thought crossed her mind.

"No," She answered quietly and surprised herself by the answer, "He doesn't. The others don't either, though I'm sure some of them have guessed something. And, ser, I'd like to keep it that way, please."

"I thought perhaps you'd done it on purpose," He spoke quietly and then getting to his feet and motioning her to follow him. They approached the fireplace that was in the center of the wall behind the desk and he poured two glasses of ale, continuing even though his eyes were on his work, "Sit, please, and don't trouble yourself. I won't tell anyone. Not even Teagan has guessed and he was always fond of your brother. They used to wreak havoc when the Teyrn and Fergus came to see us."

Ffion smiled sadly as she thanked him for the ale and settled into the chair more comfortably. Tilly dropped at her feet, her warm weight just touching her lady's toes.

"Thank you, Arl," She answered, this time for his promise. She swirled the contents of her mug for a moment before pressing on, "You are aware of what the bas... What Howe did, right? I mean, I'm well aware that news is arriving later and later, and probably more skewed, thanks to the Blight. But I'm sure the village has heard what happened in Highever?"

"Indeed," Eamon slowly sank into the chair opposite, welcoming the cozy warmth of the small fire in the grate. He looked at Ffion again seeing the resemblance to Bryce Cousland in her clear grey eyes and smooth brow, while Eleanor was in the set of her jaw and small, rather round face, "Yes, we know what happened, and... you need to know this, Ffion. Though, maybe you want to take a couple of sips of ale before I go on."

Ffion cocked her head at him, sitting a little straighter. She searched his gaze and her smile was even fainter.

"After the horrors I've seen in this world, all the deep dark places in our physical surroundings and what exists in people's hearts, I don't think this will really make any difference, however..." She took two swigs of the ale and then tipped the mug in Eamon's direction, "Right, go ahead."

And in the mischievous twinkle in her eyes, that sudden dismissive irrelevancy, he could see Fergus, who had always been ready with a smart comment and had a passion for playing pranks. But the Arl was sure that this was more a mimicry of her current companions. Even as a young girl, those few times he met her, she was polite and mature, always willing to visit with him and eager to make her father proud. Which was never in any form of doubt. Bryce had been entirely wrapped around Ffion's little finger and he held her in the palm of his hand. Eamon didn't think he would ever see a family that was as close as himself and Teagan, and then Isolde and Conner, but the Couslands had seemed to have everything, to have done everything right, and this was why it was so hard to believe the rumors that his brother had relayed to him.

"Well, after Teagan told me what had happened, my one question was: why would Loghain allow Howe to return to the fold without facing the consequences of his actions? He had destroyed the one family and venerable powerhouse that would be very detrimental to our success in driving the Darkspawn back. Your parents had led Highever into more prosperity than she had seen in decades and I couldn't understand why the massacre of such a financially secure arm of Ferelden would be okay. Not to mention the loss of a just and fair Teyrn and Teyrna and the murder of their good family. Teagan was able to answer that for me," He hesitated, meeting her gaze squarely. The Warden sat straight, her head held high, and it looked as though she was keeping her emotions on a very tight lead. Her fingers pressed against the mug so that the tips of them were white and he wondered how strong that lead was, "Ffion, there was a false conspiracy and more than a few accusations that are completely fabricated. Apparently Howe had papers that were sealed by your father and these were correspondence with the Orlesians. You know your family's history and the land you occupied far better than anyone else in Ferelden; I know how your mother and father felt about their children learning their heritage. And it seems that Howe was trying to make it look like the Teyrn was ready to prod Highever against Ferelden once more, claiming independence for the northern lands, and he needed support from Orlais to do so."

Ffion couldn't hold her tongue anymore. She sat forward, eyes blazing, and slammed her mug down on the table before her. Ignoring the ale that slopped onto her fingers, she shot to her feet.

"Father would never-"

"I know, Ffion, and Teagan knows, too," He interrupted gently, "He thinks that the other nobles could not accept Howe's words without a grain of salt. They find it hard to believe Bryce Cousland, who fought so hard to rid Ferelden of the Orlesians, would turn around and betray his country with them, especially at a time when we need solidarity."

The Warden began pacing beside their chairs, too wound up by this news to stay seated.

"That bastard!" She said fiercely and was sure she would have grabbed one of her knives if they weren't tucked away in her room, waiting to be strapped back to her belt again, "He was supposed to be Father's friend and he..." She spat a sharp word that Eamon was sure would make any other woman, and probably some men, blush to their roots, "I'm sorry, go on, Eamon. Unless that's it?"

"Well, that's the root of it, at least," He answered, hardly blinking at her use of his familiar name, not that he minded. It was just another trait of her father's that was so refreshing to see, "We don't even think that Loghain believes this, but Howe has always been a brilliant politician and his arrogance and ambition, while off-putting to most, is unmatched. He is what the general needs now to help him with that aspect of ruling as Anora's regent. And so it's not too surprising that Loghain has willingly turned a blind eye to what the Arl did so that he can have him on his side."

"That just puts the Coward General on the same level as that..." She was sill pacing with short, quick strides and at Eamon's startled chuckle, she managed a small smile, "Sorry, Alistair started calling him that and it just kind of stuck."

Eamon nodded his head, amused, and glad to see that Ffion was a little distracted now. The fierce light that entered her eyes was so one-tracked, he had half expected her to jump from the window and run all the way to Denerim to take Howe down. That was definitely not recommended and her mention of Alistair helped him to switch tactics.

"Speaking of Alistair," He began pleasantly, as though they were discussing an old friend they hadn't seen for some time, "I think he is starting to come around to our thinking, but he's still very resistant."

Ffion paced back to her chair and placed her hands on the back of it, not sure if she was ready to sit again. Her grey eyes were still blazing, but they were losing some of their heat. Lifting her shoulders, she spoke rather absentmindedly.

"We all have to do things we don't want to do."

"Precisely," He replied briskly, "I think what upset him the most was the fact that he was kept out of your planning with Teagan. He hasn't hid his appreciation of your trust or the fact that he respects you and, if I can be bluntly honest, I think he felt rather betrayed by the way it was handled."

Ffion's face reddened with shame and she tightened her hands on the chair, inclining her head.

"I figured that," She answered slowly, "But Teagan seemed to think it was best to just come to a consensus and then wait for you to help us convince him. I didn't mean to hurt him, which he should know well enough."

"And he does," Eamon's voice was gentle again, seeing that Alistair meant more to the Warden than she was letting on. It wasn't what his nephew felt for her, not yet anyway, but there was definitely a little seed of something there, and he couldn't stop the wheels in his head from turning. If everything went well, if they won this battle and came out ahead, the joining of the Highever Teyrnir and the king of Ferelden would be... But he was getting far too ahead of himself, "But I think he misses having someone to talk to. I know he has been confiding in Wynne, but she is on our side of this issue and has been pushing him as well. Perhaps you should try. Don't attempt to sway him one way or the other, just listen to him."

She smiled wryly at him as she plopped down in the chair and tucked the toes of her boots under Tilly's heavy weight again.

"I'm kind of the bad guy here, Eamon," She replied, "Remember? I'm on your side, too."

"I honestly don't think he's too worried about that anymore. Like I said, just listen to him, let him vent a little. And we'll keep working on him."

Ffion shook her head, still not sure they were on the right track here, but a knock on the door interrupted her next thought. Eamon called an answer and Conner flew into the room and bounded up onto his father's lap. Tilly immediately got up and went to lick the little boy's toes; she absolutely adored him and Conner started giggling as the Mabari's tongue tickled him. Ffion got to her feet, surrendering her chair to Isolde who smiled warmly at her.

"Well, my boy, what are you still doing up?" Eamon questioned as Conner wriggled about and settled himself on his father's knee.

"You promised me a story, Daddy," He answered promptly and then looked shyly at Ffion, "Can it be one about the Wardens? One with a big battle and heroes and Dwarves that drink ale and wenches and-"

"Conner!" Isolde's shock was akin to Oriana and Eleanor's when Oren started acting like his father and Ffion's heart twisted a little, "Where did you hear such things?"

"From Ser Oghren," The boy answered, "He always talks to me."

"Oops," Ffion said with a laugh. She sent Conner a conspiratorial grin. They had formed an alliance the first afternoon the companions returned to Redcliffe when the boy had materialized in the practice yard where Ffion was throwing knives into one of the targets. He had asked to be shown how to do it and she was more than happy to teach him. He had been her little shadow since then and after his lessons with Gaile, who stuck around to teach him how to control his magic until he could be sent to the Circle, he would seek out Ffion or Alistair, whom he had started idolizing, "Never you mind him, Conner. He tells tall tales to upset little boys' mothers. But definitely hold out for a story about the Wardens, and make sure that your uncle Alistair is the hero. He'd like that."

"And you, too?" Conner's green eyes were shining, looking so much like Oren's.

"You'll have to ask your father. He'll be telling the story."

"Of course, Conner," Eamon's voice was tender and Ffion knew that was her cue.

"Thank you for the advice, Arl, and I wish you a good night. Come, Tilly."

The Mabari reluctantly left the family and followed her lady as they headed back towards the main level of the castle. In the long hall that their rooms were off of, Sten and Zevran were coming Ffion's way, assisting a stumbling, completely sloshed Oghren. She blinked in surprise as they came even with her and the Dwarf sent her a sloppy grin. When she left the table, he had been a little tipsy, which wasn't unusual, and she wondered for the first time how long she and Eamon had been talking.

"Hiya, boss," Oghren greeted. He tipped forward quite suddenly and would have landed in a heap at her feet had Sten not grabbed him more firmly.

"How in the world..." She trailed off, at a loss.

"He dared me," Sten answered with a shrug as Zevran chuckled, "He wished to know who could drain a tankard more quickly and when I won, he thought I had cheated. So, one turned into two, and-"

"And two turned into three, three into four; and so on and so forth," Zevran interrupted smoothly, "In no time our smelly little friend was under the table."

"Me?" Oghren's eyes were suddenly fierce, but it was more comical than anything, considering that he couldn't see straight, "I coul' drink any one o' yeh un'er th' table. Jus' yeh try me."

"Of course you can, Oghren," Ffion replied soothingly, "Now, go and rest up. If we don't leave tomorrow, it'll probably be the day after and you might need the time to recover."

"Righ', righ'," Oghren, still clinging to the Qunari, was forgetting the slight already, "G'nigh', cap'n."

Zevran was able to gracefully extricate himself from them and he grinned as Sten grumbled to Ffion.

"I do not believe that I agreed to this part of our quest," The Qunari said as Oghren's fingers bit into his side.

"Asala, Sten," The Warden replied, eyes twinkling in spite of her rather cryptic words, "Helping Oghren is like helping me. And, remember, teamwork."

The Qunari pressed on, muttering under his breath, though Ffion had almost earned a smile and Zevran was chuckling again. His amber eyes danced, pleased that the chasm had disappeared from the Warden's face.

"All is well, I hope?" He asked, in no hurry to retire to his room.

"Yes, fine," She replied, "Eamon asked if I could talk to Alistair for him. Is he still downstairs?"

"I am not sure where Chirpy disappeared to," Zevran's eyes were fastened on her, curious about this change. The Warden had not exactly been as friendly with Alistair as usual since they arrived in Redcliffe. But the silence was more on the ex-Templar's side than Ffion's and Zevran was eager to know what had occurred, "Our well endowed Wynne asked to speak with him not long after you departed and I have not seen him since. Is there anything amiss?"

Ffion knew her face was an open book where the Elf was concerned, but at least this time she could be honest without worrying her emotions would give her away.

"Not really," She said slowly, "He's a little pissed with me and Eamon recommended that I apologize. I just thought that tonight might be a good time for it."

"Ah, well, I'm sure he will forgive our little dove. I am headed for bed. Care to join me?"

"Good night, Zevran," She replied firmly and was already walking away from him.

His delighted laughter followed her as she turned into her own bedroom. Tilly let out a surprised woof and Alistair got to his feet from the chair beside the fireplace.

"Oh," She said in surprise, "Here you are. Good, I wanted to talk to you."

He blinked.

"Really? That's weird. I've been waiting around to talk to you," He answered.

Ffion chuckled, glad that they were at least able to speak civilly to each other.

"Should we draw straws to see who goes first?" She asked as she came into the room and perched on the edge of her bed to tug her boots off.

Alistair watched her loosen the straps of the soft leather boots and remembered doing that same thing in Orzammar while she sprawled on the bed, giggling, and saying that he was the first boy she'd had in her room since that friend of hers... But now was not the time for those thoughts and he clung more tightly to the anger and annoyance he felt over her plotting behind his back.

"Does this have to do with whatever Eamon talked to you about?" He asked, the cool note of his voice surprising even him. Maybe he was spending too much time with Morrigan. Horrible, spine-tingling thought that that was! "I mean, did he ask you to talk to me?"

Ffion let her boots drop and propped one palm flat on the bed, tipping her head a little at him. His honey eyes were still angry and she knew she'd have to be careful here. It would be too easy to lose her temper and make everything worse.

"Yes," She pressed on quickly as the ex-Templar drew himself up and looked as though he was going to argue, "But it's not what you think, Alistair. I wanted to apologize. You're right. I went behind your back and I shouldn't have."

Alistair could see the honest feeling in her face and though that little voice in his head told him that she was being genuine, his frustration wouldn't let it rest so simply.

"You're right, you shouldn't have," He said and saw that her grey eyes were starting to flash, "Especially when you knew, when I told you, that I didn't want this life and one of my best days was when I was told that it wouldn't ever crop up."

Ffion bit the inside of her cheek briefly before she ventured a response.

"I know, and I'm very sorry," Her voice was soft and she was trying desperately to keep a hold on her tongue, "But Ferelden needs a solid leader she can unite under to defeat the Blight. Anora is only royalty by marriage and other than that, her one great distinction is that she's General Loghain Mac Tir's daughter. The people think she's beautiful, graceful, and all of that, but beauty and grace do not qualify one to rule a nation, and it's already quite clear that her father is the one that's ruling. And, honestly, what good has that done us? Good King Cailan is dead and it's the general's doing; the Grey Wardens were heaped with the blame and have been all but driven from Ferelden, again thanks to Loghain; the Blight is encroaching from the south, devouring the farmlands that provide Ferelden with more than seventy-five percent of her fresh produce and meats, not to mention the trade goods that are shipped to the other provinces. In all, thanks to one man's ambition and selfish desires, our land is being systematically destroyed and her people have no way of fighting back because that man has outlawed those that are born and bred for it. Alistair, you can't tell me that this means nothing to you."

Alistair's eyes flickered and his anger slowly dissolved into admiration. Ffion was well-spoken and passionate, her grey eyes clear and honest, and he wondered if he could talk her into sticking around when, and if, they won this war and he took over. He blinked at the suddenness of this thought, realizing for the first time that his stepping forward was going to happen no matter how fiercely he argued. He walked across the room and settled onto the mattress beside her, studying his fingers as he answered.

"You're right, I can't," His gaze met hers and he saw that the trip back to Redcliffe, the time spent in the sun, had sprayed her nose and cheeks with little specks of freckles and her grey eyes were all the more stunning, "And... I'll try, Ffion. I'm not saying I like it, I'm not saying that this still isn't the stupidest thing I've heard... ever, but I am Maric's son, though I hate that, too. And you make a great point, Ferelden needs a Theirin on the throne and I guess I just have to suck it up. Right?"

"It doesn't seem that Eamon and Teagan are going to give you much choice," She smiled at him, sitting straight and tugging the pins that were keeping her heavy braid curled into the bun, "Besides, it's like I told you: Eamon isn't going to prop you up and desert you, Teagan won't either. And, depending on what happens with the Wardens, I could stick around, too. You know, like an adviser, if you'd like."

Alistair's eyes quickened on her face again as the braid started slipping down onto her shoulder. Her tone had been a little teasing and he almost didn't dare to hope.

"Would you?" He asked softly, still searching her face for any sign of the joke.

Her smile was even gentler as she tugged the last of the pins out and tossed her braid over one shoulder. She patted his arm with her free hand.

"Of course," She answered and then went on as his face flushed with happiness and his honey eyes became tenderer than she'd seen them, "Now, your turn. What was it you wanted to tell me?"

His expression was confused for a minute, his happiness clouding his original reason for coming in here.

"Oh, right," He said and shifted on the bed as Tilly came close and settled her head into Ffion's lap, "It's about Wynne, but you've got to swear that you won't tell her I've told you. She's worried that if you find out you'll send her back to the Circle and she's determined to see this through."

Ffion frowned at him, her lips parted.


"Don't worry, she's not threatening to elope with Oghren or anything," He interrupted, his eyes dancing, "Though Wynne does like him, strangely enough, and Oghren did say that he was just the right height to show a human girl a good time, but... ugh. Doesn't it seem worse then Zevran? I mean, at least with him-"

He stopped abruptly as Ffion reached out and tapped his head with a grin, thrilled that he was back to sharing his silly jokes and odd quips with her.

"Focus, Alistair, focus," She said in a teasing voice and dropped her hand, "If it's not that, what's troubling her?"

Alistair was quiet for a moment. That movement was so like what had happened in Orzammar and he had thought for a split-second... Focus, Alistair! This time it was the little voice in his head and he shook himself mentally before answering her.

"It's about what happened in that cavern, when she saved us all with that spell of hers. She's been feeling kind of guilty about hiding it from us and when she had the chance after you were called away, she took it. Anyway, you remember in the Circle, when that mage was concerned about Wynne being so badly hurt? Well, it turns out she actually died."

Ffion's brows went up as the ex-Templar paused in his narration. She stroked Tilly's ears absentmindedly.

"She died?" She repeated, "But... that doesn't make any sense."

"I know. She said that for this to be even a bit believable, I had to understand some of her history. Wynne's not a mage that was found late in life, she's been in the Circle forever and even at a young age, she had a knack for healing. She also felt that when she entered the Fade, she was protected and... watched over," He glanced sidelong at her, "I don't know how familiar you are with some of the Chantry's studies, but I've heard of this before. Most people call it the spirit of faith and there are only a few that have actually admitted to feeling it. I figured if any one of us would have a benevolent spirit watching over them, it'd be Leliana or Wynne, so it kind of fits, yeah? Anyway, when Uldred and the blood mages attacked the Circle and sent demons after those kids that were with Wynne, she fought back. The odds weren't even and one of the bastards got lucky. She doesn't remember a whole lot: she said it was just nothing for a moment and then she heard someone calling her name and she felt weightless. There was someone or something talking to her and the next thing she knew, she was blinking up at her fellow mages and conscious of everything again. She said her strength was like it had been when she was younger and she knew what had happened. The spirit that had watched over her had given her another chance and she thinks that it was for this; for helping to defeat the Blight. But she's worried that her time is running short. She told me that she knows she's living on borrowed time and she's afraid that that episode means it's wearing thin. That's why she didn't want you to know. She thinks that you'll send her right back to the Circle and she doesn't want to leave us."

"Do I really seem that mean?" Ffion asked with a wry smile, "Wynne has nothing to worry about. She's a good healer, we need her, and she's part of the company now. What would we do without her?"

Alistair smiled back, pleased. He got to his feet with a yawn. If he wasn't so tired, he'd sit on the bed and talk to her all night.

"We'd be screwed," He answered, "Are we leaving tomorrow?"

"Or the day after. You'll have to let Eamon know about your change of heart and Oghren might need a couple of days to recover."

"Right, forgot about that. So Sten won, huh? Didn't think the Qunari would concede to doing something so close to... fun, I guess."

"He's coming around," She grinned up at him, "By the time this is all over, he'll be giggling with Leliana, swapping recipes with Wynne, and as crazy about Morrigan as she is about him."

The ex-Templar shuddered a little, heading towards the door.

"Banish the thought," He said it like a prayer and sent her his crooked grin, "Good night, Ffion. And thanks, for understanding and apologizing, I mean."

"You're welcome. Good night."

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