Witherfang is a... Woman??
The little entry was dim and narrow and the door ahead unlocked, but the moment they opened it, the wolves attacked. Three sprang from the very shadows and two more were running across the cramped, low-ceilinged room they stepped into. Tilly tackled one and Leliana was quick to help when the Mabari yelped. Oghren and Sten took turns with a second, while Morrigan and Zevran teamed up for one of very few times to battle with two more. The others were kept busy and Ffion was quickly getting accustomed to her shorter hair. As soon as the wolves were gone, the companions walked through the next room and found more of the wolves to go up against. There were two stairways that led down to dead ends opposite one another and, further into the room, there were two more. Directly ahead was a fifth that still continued downward and Ffion led the way, her swords drawn.
She slowed as they came to the bottom and stopped at the last step. Three wolves blocked the way forward; all standing on their hind legs, and one moved forward. His coat was a beautiful silver-grey and his striking yellow eyes were wary. Clearly he was not looking for a fight.
"Hold, human," He said, his voice rasping, "We have no desire to attack you; we have lost too many of our fellows. The Lady has asked me to extend a parley to you and your companions. She wishes for you to hear the whole tale, not just what that traitorous Elf has said. Will you accept?"
Ffion studied the wolf, feeling the others' eyes on her. She slowly straightened herself, refusing to brush her curls back as they tickled her neck. There was every chance in the world that this could be a trap and the wolf seemed to sense her thoughts. He gave a wave of one paw and his two companions eased up with him. His yellow eyes were on the Warden.
"We are vastly out-numbered, human," He added, "And would be dead before an alarm could be raised if you intend to attack without instigation. Our Lady wishes to speak with you, will you allow a moment of your time or no?"
The Warden hesitated for half a second longer and than inclined her head. She didn't put her swords away and ignored the muttering that started up behind her.
"Okay, we'll hear her out," She answered, "Lead the way."
The wolf returned her nod and then added as the companions gingerly followed after Ffion,
"One false move, human, one attempt on the Lady's life, and I will return from Beyond to torment you forever. Understood?"
Ffion smiled faintly, rubbing Tilly's head as the Mabari growled at the threat.
They were admitted to another huge cavern, the very last room in the ruins. Sunlight shafted even far down here and trees lined the walls on either side of them: slender alder and oak like those growing above their heads. And straight ahead there was a massive tree that had taken root here and grown over the centuries so that it towered through the caverns, twisting and turning to follow the sunlight that seeped into the ruins. Before this was a raised dais and standing along the edge of it were roughly a dozen werewolves, all of which snarled and growled at Ffion's party as they entered. But the Warden only had eyes for the Lady who stood with the same ruddy red wolf that had threatened them at the bridge and the entrance to the ruins. Green skinned, with roots and vines twining around her arms and legs, the Lady truly looked as though she belonged to nature and nothing else. Her hair was a darker black than Morrigan's and draped down over her shoulders to cover her breasts. The vines that wrapped her legs and forearms blossomed every now and then with brilliant colors and her eyes were steady, deep pools of dark green. She studied them with interest and when she spoke, they were reminded of the grand oak. Her voice was deep for a woman and it echoed through the cavern with the sense that it was as much a part of this place as the tree behind her.
"I thank you, mortal, for agreeing to the parley," She said, "I worry that you do not know the scope of the action Zathrian wishes you to take."
"And you know what Zathrian has told us... how, exactly?" Ffion questioned, her curiousity growing by the second.
"I simply know that there are things he would not tell you, things that you would need to know to make such an important decision," The Lady paused for a moment, drawing in a breath and continuing in a heavy voice, "It was Zathrian that created the curse that these people suffer. The same curse that his people now suffer."
Ffion's lips parted in surprise and she felt Alistair stiffen beside her as Wynne let out a soft exhalation.
"Ah, I believe that clears up one mystery at least," Morrigan's cool voice was barely even startled at this news, "'Twas quite obvious he was hiding something big, was it not?"
"He's responsible?" Ffion cocked her head at the Lady, getting over her surprise and wondering what the rest of this tale would reveal, "So how did all of this start, then? Something must have set him off."
The Lady nodded and her expression had become even more grieved. The wolves that stood with her still eyed Ffion's party suspiciously, but it was quite clear that they would not attack without her word.
"Centuries ago, when the Dalish first came to this land, a tribe of humans lived close to this Forest. They sought to drive the Dalish away. Zathrian was a young man then. He had a son and daughter he loved greatly and while they were out hunting, the humans captured them."
The ruddy wolf took over the story, his rasping voice somewhat gentled as he related his portion of the tale.
"They tortured and killed the boy. The girl, they raped and left for dead. The Dalish found her, but she learned later that she was with child. She took her own life," The wolf let that sink in for a minute and then went on, "Zathrian came to this ruin and summoned the spirit of the Forest, binding it to the body of a great, white wolf. And so Witherfang came to be. The great wolf Witherfang hunted down the human tribe. Many were killed and others were cursed by his blood, becoming twisted and savage creatures."
"Twisted and savage just as Witherfang himself is," The Lady's voice was saddened, "They were driven into the Forest. When the human tribe finally left for good, the cursed brethren remained: pitiful and mindless animals."
The ruddy red wolf dropped to a crouch beside the Lady, lowering his great head. He was almost humble in such a pose and his voice more gentle than ever.
"Until I met you, my lady. You gave me peace."
She reached out with a hand that was made up of long slender twigs and vines, stroking the fur of his neck. Her dark green eyes were tender as she smiled a little.
"I showed Swiftrunner there was another side to his bestial nature. I soothed his rage and his humanity emerged. And he brought the others to me."
She waved her other hand, encompassing the rest of the wolves. Zevran had sidled up to stand at Ffion's elbow and he was the next to speak.
"So you spread the curse to Zathrian's people so that he would know your pain, yes? This is why the Dalish are affected? For revenge?"
"In part," The Lady's gentleness had become steel and she suddenly seemed more wild, "The crimes committed against Zathrian and his children were grave, but they were committed centuries ago by those long dead. Word has been sent to Zathrian each time the Landships pass this way, but he has always ignored us. We will no longer be denied."
"The Elf is correct," Swiftrunner snarled, standing to his full height once more, "We spread the curse to his people so that his hand would be forced. He must end the curse to save them."
"Please, mortal," The Lady fixed her gaze on Ffion, her voice pleading, "Bring him here. If he sees these creatures, hears their plight, surely he will agree to end their curse. Tell him if he refuses, I will ensure that Witherfang is never found. He will never cure his clan."
Ffion absentmindedly slid her blades away, hardly realizing she was doing so, and her hands brushed the short curls. She gave them a thoughtful tousle and didn't look away from the Lady. The others were growing impatient behind her and she could feel Morrigan and Sten's thoughts already.
"How do we know that you aren't trying to trick us here?" She finally asked, "Zathrian isn't the only one capable of deception."
The Lady reached out and put one hand on Swiftrunner's arm to keep him from snapping at Ffion in response to this question. Her green eyes were calm; there wasn't even a flicker of annoyance.
"What do we have to gain by deceiving you?" She answered and her quiet voice was as direct as her eyes, "You are our one hope to end this torment. If we trick you here, how many more years will pass before another brave soul ventures to this ruin?"
"Well, with a welcome like the one you've given us, who would refuse?" Alistair was chipper and he sent a grin down at Ffion that momentarily made her forget what she was going to say.
"All right," The Warden managed and met the Lady's gaze once more, "We'll get Zathrian back here so that some more explaining can be done."
She motioned with one hand and started to turn, but the Lady stopped her.
"The way back to the entrance of the ruins will be opened for you," She said and stepped back, waving to a heavy, barred door that was to her right, "Thank you, mortal, for your help."
Swiftrunner himself went and opened the door for them, but they didn't speak until they were headed up the steps. Morrigan studied the Warden's shortened hair, thinking briefly how good a job she had done with so little experience, and then spoke.
"You are sure that this is right, Ffion?" She asked.
Ffion glanced quickly at her and then focused on the stairs again.
"You said that that was one mystery cleared up," She answered as they reached a landing in the middle of the staircase and pressed on, "Let's find out the others. Zathrian could have told us much more that first night; that was obvious. He knows the ruin was here, he knows there was a trick to getting into it, and I want to know how many other secrets he's been keeping from us. I'm damn tired of the run-around and I'm not going to put up with it any longer."
Like Wynne before her, Ffion's words seemed to hold some sort of magic and when they reached the top of the staircase, there was Zathrian. He was crouching in the middle of the first room of the ruins, studying one of the skeletal warriors, the massive tree root ripping through the steps behind him. Dying daylight seeped into the hall and the Elf turned his head to look at them as they crowded the entrance.
"Can't say I'm too surprised to see you here," Ffion said dryly as the Keeper approached.
Zathrian was almost amused by that. He met her gaze directly.
"You had cleaved a passage through the Forest," He replied, "You cannot fault my desire to ensure my clan's well-being and see that the right thing is done."
Ffion snorted and folded her arms tightly over her chest.
"A passage that you knew well," Her voice was sharp and she felt her annoyance spike, "A little forewarning would have been nice."
Zathrian waved his hand dismissively.
"That is irrelevant now. Do you have the heart?"
The Warden allowed a little smile, wanting to knock the Elf off his pedestal and surprise him.
"No," She said simply, "There was a snag."
A flicker of annoyance spasmed over Zathrian's face and he narrowed his eyes.
"What do you mean 'a snag’?"
"Why didn't you just tell us the whole truth about this curse from the beginning?" She asked, ignoring his question, "We could have avoided a lot of grief."
Zathrian spread his arms, indicating the whole of the ruins.
"Would you have accepted if you knew its extent?" He countered, "You are a Warden and your Order's history makes this argument pointless. The Wardens have always used dire situations to their advantage and now is no exception. You need the Dalish to fulfill that treaty and I am making that possible. Are you changing your mind now?"
Alistair bristled, not liking the Keeper's tone.
"There's a line that Wardens try not to cross," He cut in, "And that's crossing into the exploitation of innocents. These wolves had nothing to do with the kidnapping of your son and daughter, and it's cruel to keep tormenting them like this."
"'Cruel?'" Zathrian's voice was full of a quiet fury, "Do not speak to me about cruelty. You did not see what was done to my son. You did not have to look into my daughter's eyes and see the pain and terror there. Nothing you have experienced gives you the right to sit judgement on my actions."
Ffion studied him closely and saw the veritable storm of pain cross his sharp features. She felt a sudden kinship with him. He had gone through a pain close to her own and she heard Leliana and Zevran shifting a little behind her. They had all experienced this in one way or another and she couldn't help but let her thoughts wander. Would she hold Howe's descendants responsible for her family's destruction? She could see the broad, easy road that would lead that way, but in all honesty, could she walk it? She thought of Thomas, Howe's youngest and mirror image in every way. It would be easy to blame him. But Nathaniel and Delilah... Nate had been one of Fergus' dearest friends and had constantly warred with himself over his devotion to his father and the knowledge that Howe was a bastard. And Delilah was her father's antithesis in every way. She had been sweet and cheerful, always giving Ffion a welcoming smile; and unfortunately caught in a nobles' world which chaffed her at every turn. No, there was no way that Ffion could continue her campaign against them and that made her voice incredibly dry when she answered the Keeper.
"Try us," She said, her arms tightening for a brief moment, and she could feel Zevran's gaze on the back of her head. Her face really was too much of an open book, "I believe that I didn't actually promise you anything, I just came here to check the situation out, which we've done. They want an audience with you and before you start telling me that they will take the opportunity to attack you, I'll tell you that I won't let that happen. Their Lady wishes to speak with you and I trust that that is all she is after."
"And why should I trust to your word now?" His eyes were flickering with anger.
"Do you have another option?" Morrigan's cool voice answered, "Trust us, Keeper, these beasts are only looking to speak."
"You do realize that this Lady is Witherfang, do you not?" He said, looking to knock Ffion about just as she did to him earlier.
"Ah, I though as much," The Warden refused to be baited, "She said that she had the power to ensure that Witherfang would never be found and you wouldn't cure your clan, so that makes sense. I wouldn't press your luck if I were you."
Zathrian studied the companions briefly, looking for any softening towards his cause, and then threw his hands up a little in defeat.
"Very well, I will meet with this Lady. Lead the way."
When they returned to the cavern, the wolves snarled and growled even more fiercely and everyone could feel the power that emanated from the Keeper. It surrounded him and both Wynne and Morrigan could sense it extending towards the slender trees that lined the walls. Swiftrunner was poised tensely beside the Lady and Ffion, Tilly, and Alistair all stepped forward of the others with Zathrian.
"So here you are, spirit," The Keeper said with a sneer.
Swiftrunner darted forward before anyone could blink and towered menacingly over Zathrian.
"She is the Lady of the Forest!" The wolf exclaimed, his rasping voice echoing through the cavern, and his teeth bared fiercely, "And you will address her properly."
The Lady said his name quietly and Swiftrunner reluctantly returned to her side, still snarling at the Keeper. Zathrian was less than impressed. His eyes roved over the wolves and then returned to the Lady with the air that this whole situation was well below his attention.
"I see you have taken a name, spirit," He clearly used the word simply because it pissed off Swiftrunner, "And you have given names to these beasts that follow you."
"It was they who gave me a name, Zathrian," The Lady answered, her voice soft and sad. In contrast to the Keeper, she wasn't looking to rip and tear with her words, "And they follow me because I have helped them to find who they are."
Zathrian's cool collection gave way and his face was a mask of anger and pain.
"Who they are does not change whom their ancestors were," He snapped and was oblivious to the way the wolves coiled like springs, "It does not change what was done to my son and daughter. This... appearance they have taken on simply mirrors the savageness that exists in their hearts."
"He will not help us, Lady," Swiftrunner's words were a growl; "It is as I warned you. He's not here to talk."
"No, that is untrue," Zathrian had calmed himself some and his eyes were on the Lady, "I am here to talk, though I see little point in it. It goes against your nature as it goes against mine. We both know where this will lead, spirit."
The Lady walked forward, her beautiful face softening. Her gaze fixed on the Keeper and Ffion's party seemed forgotten. They were merely an audience to this battle of ancient wills.
"It does not have to be that way, Zathrian, I know there is room in your heart for compassion," Her voice had a plea that was impossible to ignore; "Surely your retribution is spent."
Zathrian looked for a moment like he was going to concede. His brown eyes lost their angry fire and there was nothing but a deep grief there. He studied her face avidly, caught in between those two fierce emotions, and then one of the wolves let out a small, soft growl, and he was all righteous anger again.
"My retribution is eternal, as is my pain," He replied and he fought to make his tone severe as he waved to the wolves, "This is justice, no more."
The Lady had turned away at his anger as though she had no wish to see it and stood with Swiftrunner once more. She looked at the Keeper with a speculative air, cocking her dark head to one side.
"Are you certain that your pain is the only reason you will not end this curse?" She questioned, "Have you told the mortal how it was created?"
Ffion was rather surprised that they had mentioned her. With their severe expressions, their refusal to look at anyone but each other, she had thought her part in this dispute was forgotten. She glanced at Zathrian and watched his eyes flicker a little before she turned to the Lady.
"He said that you and Witherfang are one," She answered slowly and then shot another look at Swiftrunner, "So that must mean you are the spirit he bound to the wolf."
"That is so," The Lady inclined her head, "Witherfang and I are bound as one being, but such powerful magic could not be accomplished without Zathrian's own blood. Your people believe you have rediscovered the secret of immortality, Zathrian, but that is not so. So long as the curse exists, so do you."
"No!" Zathrian exclaimed, putting his hands up, "That is not so."
Ffion looked at the Keeper thoughtfully and Wynne was the next to speak.
"So this means Zathrian's death would end the curse?" She asked and it was clear she hated even suggesting it.
"No, the curse has a life of its own," The Lady was grieved again and she shared Wynne's hesitation and distaste, "Zathrian's death only has a small part to play in this."
"Then let us kill him and get it over with," Swiftrunner crouched, ready to spring.
"For all your powers of speech, you are beasts still," Zathrian said, his voice cool and not in the least bit concerned by the wolf's anger. He was dismissive and superior, rivaling Morrigan as he added, "What good would it do you to kill me? I am the only one who knows the ritual to end the curse and I will not perform it."
"You see, Lady! We must kill them all!" Swiftrunner snarled furiously and Tilly's hackles rose in response.
Zathrian swung around to face Ffion and Alistair. The grief was gone from his brown eyes and they were snapping furiously.
"And do you see?" He demanded, "They turn on you as quickly. Do what you came here to do, Warden, or get out of my way."
It was an interesting show-down. The Lady was the only one keeping the wolves from leaping on Zathrian and tearing him apart; and the companions, weapons in hand, had fixed their attention on Ffion, waiting for her word. The Warden hadn't moved, she was studying Zathrian again, deep in thought, and she didn't realize that even the Lady was listening for her answer. She could smell the musky fur of the wolves, the dank air of the cavern, in spite of the sunlight shafting down and those slender trees; the destruction here was worse than above and it made her wonder how much longer these ruins would hold up. Thoughts of the centuries that the wolves had passed here, slowly coming to back to their human feelings and emotions, tortured her like it must have tortured them. To realize that this would be everyday life for Maker knew how long, knowing that everyone outside of this Forest would run, screaming, in the opposite direction as she approached, never considering helping, softened her heart for the wolves' cause. She met the Keeper's gaze, hearing Morrigan's soft sigh as the witch read her face expertly, and shook her head a little.
"I'm sorry, Zathrian," She said firmly, "The Lady's right. The only sin these wolves committed was having the wrong ancestors. You can't keep them captive like this any longer."
"We're standing for what's right here," Alistair added and his presence at Ffion's elbow was reassuring as he pulled his sword free and lifted his shield arm.
Zathrian was angry, but once again it was more grief than fury. He stepped back from the dais as the companions crowded towards the wolves and pulled his staff from his back. His power surged through the room with Morrigan and Wynne's and made the air crackle with magic. The trees lining the walls were snapping and popping as they woke and there was a bright flash of light and a howl as the Lady morphed into Witherfang.
"Then you shall die with the rest of them," The Keeper said, "You shall all know my pain."
He conjured a shield of energy around himself as the trees slowly stomped forward to go against the wolves and Ffion's party. The link that joined Witherfang and Zathrian was such that the wolf could not attack him and so she turned her attention to one of the wild sylvans with a group of her kin. There were eight of these that were doing their best to take down any of the wolves or companions, and Zathrian also summoned a handful of shrieks that helped even out his odds. Morrigan and Wynne were kept busy with protecting the others from the Keeper's steady bolts and Ffion and Zevran darted through the shrieks, hacking away at them. Sten and Oghren were detrimental to taking down the sylvans and Leliana fired at Zathrian rapidly, trying to get any arrows past that shield of magic. Tilly was more at ease fighting with the wolves, but she joined her lady the instant that Ffion turned to the Keeper with Morrigan beside her. Swiftrunner was on their heels and Wynne ignited two of the sylvans that were making for their unprotected backs. There were only three trees left now and the wolves kept them busy, the last of the shrieks were disposed of, and Morrigan had broken through Zathrian's shield. He recovered quickly, swinging his staff at Ffion who ducked away and took it to her shoulder rather than her head. She danced away further as Morrigan shot a bolt of energy at the Keeper and Zevran sprang forward from the shadows behind him. His blades gleamed in the dim light and he would have ended everything, but Zathrian sensed his presence and side-stepped quickly. Instead of hitting the Keeper, Zevran's blades knocked into his staff and sent it clattering away across the floor. The Elf had turned about, but Ffion was suddenly there, grabbing his arm as Zathrian fell heavily to his knees and bowed his head.
"No," Alistair's voice was breathless with the exertion of the fight and he held Oghren back as the Dwarf started for the kneeling Elf, "Wait."
The Lady was herself again and had her hands full with restraining the wolves. All of them were as keen as Oghren to reach Zathrian and she was the only reason they hadn't pounced. They were loathe to go against her wishes and this worked well in the Keeper's favor. He lifted his head slowly, meeting Ffion's gaze, and looking older than he ever had before. His deep brown eyes were exhausted and pain-filled and the fight had taken a lot out of him.
"You - you would show me mercy?" He asked, his voice disbelieving.
Ffion arched her brows, letting go of Zevran as Tilly came close and leaned against her thigh. She glanced down at the hound briefly, but Tilly was fine.
"The second line I will not cross is cutting down those that surrender," She answered coolly, "That makes two for me. What's your count at again?"
Oghren chuckled as Zevran grinned wickedly at her. Sten approached, Asala still grasped tightly and violet eyes hard as they fixed on Zathrian.
"He does not deserve our mercy, kadan," The Qunari said, "Let us end this."
"Agreed," Snarled Swiftrunner, coiling again to spring forward.
The Lady was suddenly there, one twig and vine hand pressing against Swiftrunner's arm.
"No, Swiftrunner!" Her voice was deeper in its command and the wolf fell back, lowering his head in consent. Leliana's protest had been drowned in the Lady's and the Orlesian didn't get a chance to say anymore, "If we do not have room in our hearts for mercy, how can we expect to find any in his? No, we will not kill him."
Leliana and Wynne relaxed, smiling gently at the Lady. The wolves collectively snarled and growled, but didn't move towards Zathrian who shook his head.
"I cannot do as you ask, spirit," He said softly and winced as he got to his feet, "I am too old to know mercy anymore. All I can see are the faces of my children and my clan... I cannot."
Compassion tugged at Ffion's heart and she saw something of the hopelessness that came so close to consuming her. She slid her swords away and straightened her shoulders.
"Zathrian, are you really willing to let your clan die? For this?" She asked, matching his tone with her own.
The Keeper looked at her for a long moment and then gave a sigh that was exhaustion itself.
"Perhaps I have lived too long," He was talking more to himself than them, "This hatred within me is like a gnarled root. It has consumed my soul... And what of you, spirit? You are bound to the curse as I am. Do you not fear your end?"
The Lady gave him an indulgent smile, showing the tenderness that seemed so odd in this situation with the wolves staring at Zathrian in so much hungry hate.
"You are my maker, Zathrian," She replied, "You gave me form and consciousness where there was none. I have known pain and love, hope and fear, all the joy that is life. Yet of all things, I desire nothing more than an end. I beg you, maker... put an end to me. We beg you... show mercy."
Zathrian's face was lined and old. His mouth tipped in a bitter smile and he spread his hands.
"You shame me, spirit. I am an old man, alive long past his time."
The Lady's lips parted and she bent forward a little, her expression showing that she just barely dared to hope.
"Then you will do it? You will end this curse?"
Zathrian stepped forward.
"Yes, it is time," His voice was heavy, but the relief of the decision had cleared his face some, "Let us... Let us end this together."
The Lady smiled and it transformed her face into such an ethereal beauty that even Zevran was without a smart comment. Wynne fetched Zathrian's staff as the werewolves crowded around their Lady and her maker. Even on their furred faces, the sorrow was evident and Ffion's companions withdrew against the walls as soon as the Keeper had his staff again, giving them privacy. The Lady's smile had faded and she was touching each one in turn, murmuring quiet words for their ears only while Zathrian drew a steady stream of power to surround them. Swiftrunner was the last one she wished farewell and the ruddy wolf whined quietly as she pressed one vined hand against his head. He rubbed it briefly, his eyes closed, and then he nodded as she whispered to him. After a moment, she turned to Zathrian and gave him a nod. The Keeper raised the staff in one hand and the magic thickened the air, making it feel heavy, and then he struck the end against the stone floor. He remained standing for a split-second and then with a last soft breath, he fell almost gracefully to the ground. The Lady gasped at the same instant, taking one step forward, and pressing a hand to her lips. Swiftrunner placed one huge paw on her shoulder and the others closed ranks as a shaft of light started at the Lady's feet and then encompassed them all. It grew brighter and brighter and then faded almost as quickly as it came.
In the wolves' place, humans were now standing. They stared at their arms and legs in absolute wonder before turning to each other, embracing and laughing. One turned to Ffion and Alistair; his eyes still that startling bluish-green. His smile was broad and friendly and it was clear now why Swiftrunner had been the biggest of the wolves. He was about the size of Murdock with broad shoulders and his hair the same reddish-brown that his fur had been.
"It's over..." He said in wonder, his voice husky and deep, "She's gone and... we're human. I can't believe it."
Ffion returned his smile, feeling his joy in spite of the way he had seemed so heartbroken over the Lady's departure.
"Well, now what?" Alistair asked them.
"We'll leave the Forest, find other humans, and see what's out there for us," He glanced behind him at the others and then his mouth tipped in another smile, "It should be interesting, don't you think?"
"Tha's one word fer it," Oghren offered.
Swiftrunner bowed to Ffion, his eyes not leaving hers.
"I thank you, serah," He told her, "All of you. We will never forget you."
They left the cavern and hurried up the steps, eager to start their new life.
"Hopefully there is something left for them in this Blight," Leliana murmured.
All eyes went to Ffion who was bending over Zathrian's body and closing his staring eyes with a gentle hand.
"Let's hope that I didn't just royally screw us all over by allowing the clan's Keeper to kill himself instead, yeah?" She said and then glanced at Sten, "Would it be too much to ask you to carry him back to the clan? At least they could give him a proper burial then."
Wynne picked up the discarded staff once more, Zevran roamed the room, looking for anything to assist them on their travels, and Morrigan was tightening a cord around her staff. Sten stepped forward and scooped the Keeper's body into his arms and Ffion led the way up the stairs and out of the ruin. Dusk was settling in and Wynne and Morrigan both conjured balls of light at the ends of their staffs to light their way and the stars were brilliant in the sky by the time they reached the Dalish camp. Evidently the curse had ended in the same moment for the Elves as it had for the wolves and the celebration was in full swing when the companions' rather somber procession entered.
Lanaya and a few of the other eldest Elves hurried forward, their faces drawn as they saw their Keeper cradled in Sten's powerful arms. The Qunari handed him over to one of the Elves with an uncharacteristic gentleness. The rest of the clan had fallen silent and Lanaya's voice seemed to reverberate around the camp.
"Is he... is he... gone?" Her words were broken and tears had started in her bright brown eyes.
"I'm sorry, Lananya, he is," Ffion had tempered her voice and she reached out with one hand to press the First's shoulder, "He gave his life to cure his people and died a hero. The werewolves are also gone; your clan has nothing to fear."
Lanaya swallowed her sorrow enough to return Ffion's smile with a tremulous one of her own. She inclined her head and straightened her shoulders.
"Then as Keeper of this clan, I promise the Grey Wardens our aid," She said, her voice strong, "Call us and we will be there to fight at your side. Tonight, we will be busy with Zathrian's burial, of course, but you are welcome to camp here again, and please help yourself to our meal. We are in your debt for saving our poor cursed brethren. Ma serannas."
"Thank you, Keeper," The Warden replied, "We will leave in the morning, then."
She motioned to her companions and they retreated once more to a corner of the camp. After the tents were staked, Oghren, Sten, Zevran, and Leliana all wandered over to the cooking fire to eat while Wynne set out her potion ingredients and began brewing over their little fire. Morrigan retreated to her tent with Flemeth's grimoire and Alistair ducked into his as well.
After discarding her armor Ffion moved away to the other side of their tents, stopping just at the edge of the firelight, and sat on a tree that had been downed long ago. Tilly sprawled beside her and rested her heavy head on her lady's feet. The Warden absentmindedly dug one hand into her pocket and pulled out the lock of braided hair. She stared into the darkness, hearing the sounds of the fires crackling behind her and the gentle pops and hisses of Wynne's work. Somewhere below her a creek bubbled and little creatures rustled in the bushes; the soft, cool breeze made the tree branches creak and the occasional hoot of an owl was a rather mournful note.
Ffion was deep in her thoughts, her fingers stroking the braid, when the Elves' music floated to her. At first, it was just the quiet strumming of a harp and haunting notes from a flute, and then one of the Elves began to sing, her voice echoing through the camp and making Wynne's work cease as she listened. Ffion didn't turn to look behind her, instead she closed her eyes and let the melancholy melody, sung in Elvish, speak to her heart. Her brain, though, stayed busy. She didn't feel any joy or even much relief that they were finally done with the treaties, with running around the country performing acts of heroism that should never have been asked of her companions, sleeping on thin cots on the hard ground, facing down foes, mortal and immortal, whose first thoughts were to deceive and destroy; gaining forces to take down yet another of those foes and face off with one that very well could destroy all they loved and believed in... Her heart wasn't registering it, really. Instead she was thinking of the bastard Howe and wondering how much longer she would have to put up with the knowledge that the son of a bitch was still walking the earth, whole and happy, while her family was lying cold in their graves... if they had any, that is.
"Good, you kept some," Alistair's voice was quietly pleased as he settled beside her. He had abandoned his breastplate and the rest of the upper armor since they would be staying in the camp and the brown of his shirt was even darker with the dim light.
It was only then that Ffion realized the music had ended and Wynne was working again. She glanced sidelong at the ex-Templar, feeling her face start to color as she remembered how gently he had tucked her curls behind her ear and said with such tenderness: You didn't lose me. Unconsciously, she tightened her fingers around the braided hair and then recalled just why it was that she had kept this lock.
"Well, it had a kind of... special purpose," She replied and was doubly grateful for the poor light. Her face was crimson and she wouldn't have been surprised if he could feel the heat of her blush, "I haven't forgotten how sweet you were when you gave me that rose and... and all those nice things you said... and I just, I don't know. I guess I want to return the favor."
He frowned, his honey eyes darker and more than a little confused. His shoulder and knee bumped her own since the log was short and his lips parted, but she didn't want him talking just yet. She was afraid she'd lose her nerve and she wanted to see this through, knowing it was somehow the right thing to do.
"You were so unhappy about this and, well, we have no idea what tomorrow is going to bring and since I have the rose you gave me... I wanted you to have this," She extended the long braided lock and couldn't meet his gaze, "It's just... something to remember me by in case... in case the worst happens."
Alistair blinked at her, taking the hair in one hand and smiling tenderly. He wound the braid through his fingers, admiring the silky softness, and then glancing up at Ffion's face. The firelight flickered towards them, but it wasn't nearly bright enough to truly read her expression. He could tell simply by her voice that she was blushing and her grey eyes were fixed on the braid that he clasped. His heart thudded heavily as he studied the curve of her mouth and remembered how soft her lips had been. The ache to try it again was stronger than it had ever been before and, as usual, it gave him the courage he normally didn't have. He reached out with his free hand and tipped her chin up, wanting to look in her eyes, and then stroked her cheek. When she didn't stop him, didn't shy away, he cocked his head a little closer, still trying to make her look at him.
"I love this, Ffion," He told her, his voice husky, "But you know I'd remember you, no matter what. You've come to mean... so much to me."
Her grey eyes locked on his at those words and her mouth tipped slightly. Alistair felt his nerve rushing back as his fear of being seen vanished. He bent closer and Ffion's heart leaped into her throat. Her face was still flaming, but in all honesty, the thought of Alistair kissing her was... well, terrific. She had just lifted her chin when a new voice spoke, breaking this moment, and making her jump.
"My dove?" Zevran's voice carried to them, "I have some meat of a most appetizing little hare for you. You must eat something."
Alistair had dropped his hand, but was still looking at her with rather smouldering eyes. Ffion sent him an apologetic smile, eternally grateful for the tents that were partially hiding them from view.
"All right, Zev," She replied, "I'll be there in a minute."
Her gaze met the ex-Templar's and for a moment, she felt a dart of boldness that had always made her rather reckless. She got to her feet and then bent, putting one hand on his shoulder and kissing his cheek. His eyes widened with surprise as he looked up at her. She tousled his hair a little, like she used to do with Gilmore, though a voice in her head told her her feelings for Alistair were very different than those for her friend.
"Thank you, Alistair," She said quietly, her cheeks starting to cool, "You're my brother in the Darkspawn taint and you've become one of my dearest friends. You mean a lot to me, too, and I owe you so much more than a little trinket of braided hair."
He took her hand briefly and squeezed it as Tilly hopped over the log. Getting to his feet, he wanted badly to follow through with that kiss, but the others could see them now over the tents and the moment had been ruined... Typical Zevran. He smiled down at her, grasping her fingers a moment longer than necessary, and reaching with his free hand to knock that stubborn curl away again. She had pulled her hair band free and the curls tumbled against her neck, begging to be touched, but... Typical, damn, Zevran!
"It's a start," He teased, "And besides, if there was ever an occasion where the thought was what counted, it's now. Certainly it's better than a vial of blood."
"On the same plane as a rose?" She questioned and turned to the tents.
"If not a level above," He countered and was rewarded with a beaming smile and a pleasant rosy flush in her cheeks. Next time, no one was going to stand in the way of following through with a moment like that.