To Denerim, FINALLY: Where Rescues, Reunions, and Revenge Abounds
The return trip to Redcliffe was more riddled with the Darkspawn than the trip out to the Forest had been and the companions were kept very busy. Daytime was bad enough, but the nights were quickly becoming sleepless. Watches were tense and everyone was jumpy with the lack of sleep, irritated and short with one another over little things. The fact that they were drawing to the end of all of this shed its novelty shortly after they left the Dalish camp. Even Oghren and Zevran lost their usual irreverence and boundless humor, and Tilly and Syd seemed the only ones who remain unaffected. Though the Mabari was sleeping more soundly with Ffion than usual after the long days and Syd's eyes and ears were on high alert now, which worked in the party's favor.
The damage was worse than ever around Lothering and the once beautiful plains were now a complete wasteland. Ffion found herself wondering if Flemeth had gotten away unscathed and whether Morrigan was at all curious about her mother's fate. The witch was unusually withdrawn lately. She was as friendly as ever with Sten, still trying to woo him, no doubt, but Zevran and Oghren's leering went ignored without her inherent iciness, and there were several occasions when she was almost pleasant towards Alistair. The kinship she had felt for Ffion was more apparent than ever and her snide comments about the Warden's previous moments of compassion and mercy were no longer repeated. Wynne and Leliana were as much the same as ever, along with Sten. Though the enchanter's face lengthened with each destroyed village they passed and Ffion wondered how much of the 'borrowed time' she had left. Leliana had started her evening singing again and had increased her repertoire with a few of the Elvish songs, while Sten had taken to sharpening Asala practically every night and polishing his armor as though he was preparing for a procession, not a battle that may bring about the end of the world.
Alistair couldn't seem to buy time alone with Ffion and he was starting to think that Zevran and Leliana were running a joint campaign to keep him from her. Not that that stopped his thoughts. He also took to watching her during the day, missing the long hair still, but liking the shorter curls. They bobbed with her every move and danced as though they had a mind of their own. And his scrutiny was not going unnoticed. Wynne cautioned him once more about Ffion, worrying that whatever he was thinking would far out-shoot what reality actually had in store. Which was most likely true. Ffion had offered to stay behind, if they survived the Blight of course, and serve his court as an adviser, but a little voice in his head toyed with that, playing with the words and asking why he shouldn't consider making that a more permanent situation... But then his old self would forcefully take over his brain again and demand more time with his fellow Warden as a brother in the taint and friend and leave the rest to the Maker; with maybe a nudge or two...
Wynne wasn't the only one to notice Alistair's attentions. For one of a handful of times, Zevran was jealous, which hadn't happened since his first days with the Crows. He knew he had worked his way into Ffion's heart and would forever hold a place there, but she was definitely beginning to realize that her feelings for Alistair were deeper than she previously thought. And Zevran had already promised himself that he would not stand in the way of her happiness. When she was with the ex-Templar, the chasm was far from view and she was that innocent, cheerful thing he knew she must have been with her family. And Alistair himself was so obliviously happy with her that he couldn't see how hard he had fallen for his fellow Warden. He was still under the foolish assumption that it was merely the Warden link that they shared. At times, when Ffion lit up at the evening meals or even during their day's hike when Oghren said something crude or told a joke, or she was poking fun at Sten and he snarled at her, never with the poison anymore, Zevran wanted to smack Alistair upside the head and make him act on the desire written across his face... or fill the ex-Templar's spot himself.
But then, they were cresting one of the last hills that Redcliffe was nestled amongst and in full view of the lake-side village. It was mid-afternoon and the clouds that had piled up the previous night and most of the morning had finally unleashed their fury. The wind kicked up, too, and for the better part of the past three hours, the companions had traveled through drenching rain and a wind that made sure the water even seeped between their armor and into the clothes worn under it. So, naturally, instead of entering the village hailed as resplendent heroes, they looked like drowned rats. But Teagan greeted them with a broad grin and Eamon was pleased, though grim. He informed them that he had sent the notifications for the Landsmeet and garnered even more support than he had hoped and his men were prepared to leave for Denerim first thing in the morning. Ffion thought longingly of the bed that she had wanted a week's worth of and than nodded to the Arl, told her companions to be ready, and disappeared for a long hot bath while Alistair was closeted with his uncles for some last minute consults.
While all the women were taking advantage of the hot bath water, Oghren and Zevran put a dent in the supper table with Sten and the Dwarf proceeded to drink more than anyone needed to. But they never would have been able to tell in the morning. He got up well before the crack of dawn with everyone else, shrugged into his armor, and was ready to go with the rest.
It was a small troop that Eamon gathered to accompany them and Ffion had sent out missives to the Wardens' allies just before they departed the village. She had arranged for them to converge at Redcliffe and wait for the word from Denerim. Her emotions were roiling and unpredictable and she had never been more thankful for Zevran and Oghren. They expelled their pent up excitement and energy by successfully stealing the spotlight each night they staked camp and she never thought that marching towards the bastard Howe and finally walking those last steps to her retribution would be so much fun. The extra soldiers were a huge help with the Darkspawn attacks and though the monsters were very prolific and growing bolder each day, they made a mistake attacking the party that had now grown to twenty-five. Syd had the company of a few more pack horses, but he still preferred Sten over any of them and Leliana was very popular with her music each night. They were all able to sleep a little more, Eamon himself telling them that he wanted his soldiers included in as many of the watches as were needed. Ffion was loathe to give up her usual time and so they worked around this and Alistair would have taken the chance to finish what had started in the Dalish camp, but the soldiers all seemed to have adverse sleeping schedules and he could never get her alone long enough. Add the additional hurdle of Eamon and Teagan walking with him each day to give more pointers and encourage his stepping into his father and half-brother's place. Which did not improve his mood.
Though when they reached Denerim after about two weeks on the road and were greeted by a pair of incredibly hostile guards as they passed through the gates, the ex-Templar felt that they were probably on the right track there. Eamon had sent word ahead and his estate was ready for them when they arrived. Food was laid on the table and hot water was ready for baths, if they were desired. The estate was situated in a quieter part of the residential area and it was huge. It towered three workable storeys high with enough rooms for each of the companions to have their own and Ffion was settling into hers when Loghain, accompanied by his right hand Serah Cauthrien and Howe, invaded Eamon's front hall. She had just walked out to head back down the stairs when Eamon's voice traveled up to her. By sheer luck, the Arl and Alistair had just emerged from Eamon's study when the general and his entourage were admitted and Eamon was ever the gentleman.
"Loghain, this is an honor," He was saying, his voice surprised, but pleasant, "I did not expect a personal greeting from the regent."
"Why shouldn't I welcome a man who has seen fit to call all the lords and ladies from their estates while a Blight claws at the land?" The general sneered the words, his rasping voice venomous.
Ffion hesitated at the top of the stairs, not wanting to interfere, and definitely not wanting Loghain to recognize her. She stepped back a little and leaned against the wall to listen to this conversation instead.
"The Blight is why I'm here," Eamon answered, oblivious or choosing to ignore the furious annoyance in Loghain's eyes, "With Cailan dead, Ferelden must have a king to lead it against the Darkspawn."
The general's hand waved dismissively.
"Ferelden has a strong leader: its queen. And I lead her armies."
"Yeah," Alistair snorted, "Straight into blackmail and massacre."
"You should curb your tongue, whelp," Loghain snapped, "This is my city and treason is not looked upon kindly."
The ex-Templar's lips parted, but Eamon shook his head and the general was quick to see it. He folded his arms over his chest and eyed the Arl skeptically.
"There was talk that your illness left you feeble, Eamon," He said with a dangerous softness to his voice, "There are some who go so far as to suggest that you are no longer fit to advise."
Eamon had folded his own arms and returned the venom with his own.
"'Illness?'" He repeated, "Why not call your poison for what it is? Not everyone in the Landsmeet is going to cast aside their loyalties as readily as some of these sycophants have. You know this, Loghain; don't pretend that you do not."
"How long you've been gone from court, Eamon," Loghain observed, refusing to rise to the bait. Ffion could hear the clink of his armor even from her perch and his next words made her heart skip several beats and she went cold from head to toe, "Don't you recognize Rendon Howe, Arl of Amaranthine and Teyrn of Highever?"
Ffion was ready to scream. Teyrn of Highever?! That slimy, two-faced bastard in her family's home, living off her father and mother's lands and reaping the benefits...Never before had she wanted her blades so badly, never before had she had this pure desire to see blood pool onto a stone floor and feel her foe collapse with her blade in his throat... and it took all her willpower to keep from flying back to her room and then down the steps to do just that.
"And current Arl of Denerim," It was Howe's slimy voice and Ffion had taken another few steps towards her room before she stopped herself. She squeezed her eyes shut, tasting blood in her mouth as she bit down hard on her tongue, and put one hand to the wall to steady herself, "...since Urien's unfortunate death at Ostagar. The regent has proved... generous to those of us who have remained loyal."
I want his head on a platter! Ffion mentally screamed at Eamon, grabbing Tilly's collar as the Mabari caught scent of Howe and recognized him for what he was. He deserves to have his home ransacked, his blood spattered along his own walls, his family and servants cut down as they lie sleeping! I swear, you rotten, back-stabbing son of a bitch, you'll get yours if it's the last thing I do!
She hardly registered Loghain's next words. Her blood roared in her ears and she was grasping Tilly's heavy collar so tightly that she couldn't feel her fingers.
"I had hoped to talk you down from this rash course, Eamon. Our people are frightened, our king is dead, and our land is under siege. We must be united now if Ferelden is to endure and survive this crisis. Your own sister, Queen Rowan, fought tirelessly to see this country restored. Will you besmirch her memory and work with this foolish act? You are destroying our chance in defeating this Blight with your selfish ambitions for the throne."
Eamon shook his head at the general, the lines in his face more pronounced at that unfounded accusation. Alistair was bridling, ready to swoop to his uncle's defense, but the Arl spoke first. His voice was quiet and melancholic.
"Wrong again, Loghain," He said and his eyes didn't leave the general's, "And this does you no favors. You have made your bed and now you must lie in it. I cannot forgive what you've done, perhaps the Maker will, but I cannot. Our people deserve a king from the Theirin bloodline. Alistair will be the one to lead us to victory against the Blight."
Alistair shifted uncomfortably at that, but held his tongue. He knew better than to give Loghain, or anyone else, another reason to believe he couldn't do this.
"The emperor of Orlais also thought I couldn't bring him down," Loghain's voice was strong as he stepped closer to Eamon, his blue-grey eyes challenging, "Expect no more mercy than what I showed him. There's nothing I would not do for my homeland."
Zevran was just emerging from his own room as the front doors slammed so that the whole estate seemed to shake and he frowned briefly at Ffion's poised form at the top of the stairs. She was stiffly releasing Tilly's collar and looking down at her hand as she clenched and unclenched her fingers. He started towards her, wondering why she was eavesdropping instead of jumping into the middle of whatever it was that had occurred in the front hall. His ears picked up the sound of Alistair and Eamon's voices as they came closer to the steps and Ffion instantly turned away, moving to retreat to her own room, and the Elf stopped in his tracks.
The Warden's face was white, making the too bright grey eyes startling. She had set her jaw, transforming her face into the determined mask that he hadn't seen since they faced down the Broodmother and Branka. Her gaze met his and it was all the more terrible for him. She wasn't just teetering on the edge of that chasm; she was hanging by her fingertips over it. He had never seen her look so small, hopeless, and she wasn't quick enough to tuck away that emotion he recognized all too easily. She looked like he felt after discovering that Rinna had been innocent; she looked like she wanted nothing more than to die. He hurried to her as Eamon and Alistair got closer. Putting his lips close to her ear and feeling how near she was to breaking down in his arms completely, he whispered,
"Do not let Alistair see you like this, pet. Whatever the pain is, whatever you wish me to do, you know I will help you. You don't even have to ask. But, by the gods, don't let Chirpy see you fall apart; not when his well-being is so dependent upon yours."
Ffion inhaled a shaky breath and grasped Zevran's forearm, hearing Tilly whine as she pressed close. She shook her head a little and it was on the tip of her tongue to tell the Elf that it didn't matter anymore, but then Alistair's cheerful laugh reached her ears and she made a monumental effort to pull herself together. If this was how she was going to react just hearing the bastard Howe's voice, what was going to happen when she finally had to face him? She pushed that from her mind, storing it in the back with all of the other things that she never found the time to think about, and wondered briefly when that stack would topple over and spill out from her ears... But Zevran looked so worried and Alistair was almost in view and she had to compose herself.
As a way to buy more time, Zevran leaned forward again. Ffion thought fleetingly that he was going to kiss her, which would most definitely serve as a distraction, but instead he was muttering one of his crude jokes. And in spite of herself, in spite of the fact that she was exhausted by the force of her emotions, she chuckled and then shoved at his shoulder as she usually did when he reached the punch line. She felt as close to normal as she was going to get considering the circumstances when Alistair and Eamon were level with them.
The Arl gave her a quick, concerned look, but refrained from asking at Zevran's barely perceptible shake of the head. Alistair took no notice of this, studying Ffion with a rather worried frown.
"You okay, Ffion?" He asked, not liking the pinched look about her mouth and how pale she was, "You look a little under the weather."
Ffion smiled at him and Zevran was shocked that she could be so convincing when she chose to work at it.
"Oh, yeah, I'm fine," She was almost flippant and the Elf could see that she had at least pulled herself up from the chasm again, "I'm still trying to catch up on my sleep is all. So, Eamon, what's our next move? I know that you aren't quite ready for the Landsmeet. Is there anything I can help with?"
Eamon put away his curiousity, already figuring that Ffion had been listening from the stairs. That was the only explanation for the haunted air that slowly dispelled from her. He knew that it wasn't anything that the Elf had done and felt his heart ache for the Warden. Her desire for revenge was a borderline obsession and he could only imagine how difficult it had been for her to simply sit and listen to Howe's wrongfully acquired titles and hear his voice without taking action against him.
"At the moment, no," He replied, "We must wait for the other lords and ladies to arrive and as soon as everyone is in Denerim, we will convene. You could see about persuading some of the nobles that are on the fence about Alistair's claim, but that can wait until the morning. Tonight, the cook has outdone herself, yet again, and we are going to feast like there is no tomorrow."
"Because, in all honesty, there may not be, yes?" Zevran added.
"Precisely," Eamon was brisk, earning smiles from all three of them, though it seemed an odd thing to joke about. Especially when there was so much truth to the words, "Now, Alistair, Teagan's probably waiting for us. Let's go and see what we can do for him now that the ugliness of meeting Loghain is over with."
"The taciturn general, here?" Zevran asked innocently, distracting them from Ffion, whose face had become drawn again.
"Yes, a personal welcome and warning in no uncertain terms that we will have our hands full at the Landsmeet," Eamon ushered Alistair away and left the two alone with Tilly.
Ffion immediately paced to her bedroom and Zevran followed, swinging the door partially shut. She circled the room, unable to sit still, and she kept grabbing the knives that were laying on the vanity's surface and then dropping them again like she was pissed off there was no target for them. Before he could ask, she began speaking, her voice short and rough with emotion.
"I want him, Zevran," She said and pulled viciously on a lock of hair that tickled her cheek. Her eyes were blazing with fury and her face had gone from parchment white to bright red, and he knew that she didn't mean Alistair, "I want him. That double-crossing, back-stabbing, two faced son of a bitch doesn't deserve to walk another step or breathe another breath. Damn him!"
This time, she slammed the knife down into the wood and left it, quivering, where it was.
"Perhaps you should not take out your anger on the innocent table, my dove," He said calmly and strode over to yank the dagger free. He placed it with the other and turned to meet her furious gaze, pleased that she wasn't nearing the chasm yet, "Instead, tell me what this is about. Who-"
"No," She interrupted swiftly and held up one hand, "Don't ask me, Zev, not yet. Please don't. I can't tell you right now because I would muddle everything. I'd leap out the window and go tearing down the street after the bastard and cut him down. And then... well, none of you would have me around anymore and Alistair would walk out on Eamon, if what you said about his dependence is true."
"You know that it is, pet," The Elf pushed the offending hair back from her face and then chucked her under the chin when it was clear she had calmed down enough to be rational again, "You have bided your time, let the bastard play into your hand, yes? When one is dishonest and treacherous for long enough, they fall into their own trap. He will make a mistake and you will be there to punish him thoroughly for it."
And, naturally, the Elf was right. The feast that Eamon had promised was wonderful, though it didn't last as long into the night as it would have in any other situation. All of Ffion's companions were tired from the travel and little sleep, and mixing this with eating more than they should have, they dropped off well before midnight. Ffion had eaten what she could, but her thoughts were still on Howe and that did little for the appetite. And about a quarter-hour after she had turned in, there was a gentle knock on her bedroom door and she was still wide awake, thinking it over. She slipped off the soft mattress, tossing a pair of pants on to match her cotton shirt, and then padded to the door with Tilly on her heels. It was one of Eamon's clerks who looked as though he had just rolled out of bed as well and he beckoned her to follow him to the Arl's quarters. Once there, Ffion found Eamon waiting with a dark-haired Elven woman that she had never seen before. The Elf was clearly distressed while Eamon tried to sooth her worries and she veritably flew to Ffion as the Warden entered the room.
"Oh, please, Warden, you must help me!" She cried and almost reached out to take Ffion's hands in hers. Her Orlesian accent was thicker even than Leliana's and with the emotion in her voice, it was difficult to understand her, "My poor lady, she needs your help."
Ffion blinked, glancing quickly at Eamon who lifted his shoulders in a shrug.
"I haven't been able to get anything else from her," He said, "She came here solely to speak to you and hasn't told me anything."
The Warden turned back to the Elf and took her elbow, steering her into the room and closer to the little fire that was lit in the hearth. She perched on the arm of one of the couches, Tilly beside her, and met the Elf's distraught gaze.
"All right, serah" She said quietly, "Start over. Who are you, now? And who has sent you to ask for my help?"
The Elf began pacing in front of the fire, but Ffion's firm, direct questioning had the right effect on her and she spoke more clearly now.
"My name is Erlina," She began, "I am Queen Anora's personal maid and it was she who sent me here to request your aid. She is being held captive and there is a terrible rumor that she will be... will be killed if we tarry any longer. Please, you must help!"
The last was such a pathetic plea that Ffion almost reached out to steady Erlina again and then thought better of it.
"Slow down, Erlina," She said instead and used that same firm tone as before, pleased that it was working so well, "Who is holding the queen captive and threatening her life?"
"The Arl Howe," Erlina answered and didn't register Ffion's suddenly ramrod straight back and fierce gaze, "He offered Loghain a safe place for her. There was some worry that the people were growing mutinous against her, but now she is locked in one of his rooms and forbidden to leave. And the rumor is that she will be killed and the blame laid on Arl Eamon and the Wardens. My lady has been waiting for your arrival. She fears that she can no longer trust her father and has no friends among those nobles that the general surrounded them with. She is willing to speak against her father in the Landsmeet if you help her here."
Ffion glanced at Eamon, but the Arl hadn't looked away from Erlina.
"And why haven't you gone to the other nobles with this?" He asked and his voice was hard, "Surely not all of them distrust Anora?"
The Elf was almost disdainful as she answered.
"I am an Elf, my lord, and from Orlais. The Fereldens do not take kindly to Orlesians even when one is trying to help them; my experience tells me this."
"If Anora's promised us her voice against Loghain, why not?" Ffion asked Eamon, her eyes blazing at the thought of facing Howe tonight and ending this once and for all.
Eamon could read that easily and he glanced at Erlina.
"Excuse us for a moment, Erlina," He said and then grasped Ffion's elbow and tugged her to the other side of the room. Putting both hands on her shoulders, he met her gaze severely and went on, "Are you suggesting this to help the queen and Alistair, or to fulfill your own wants and desires? Because if it's the latter, Ffion, you will be destroying Alistair's chance to win those nobles over that are on the fence about him. Are you willing to take that chance?"
Ffion's face flushed with anger and she shrugged away his hands, at least remembering to keep her voice quiet as she answered him.
"And why can't I do both?" She demanded, "You've heard the phrase, killing two birds with one stone? Here's my chance. I'll free Anora and if I run into Howe... I can't promise that he'll make it out unscathed. Besides, you said yourself, Loghain needs him for his expertise in politics and his ambition. If he's gone, the general loses that weapon and that's not a bad thing for us, you know that."
Eamon knew there was no way to talk Ffion out of this now that she had the idea in her head and so he wasn't going to try. He sighed, shrugging at her.
"Very well, Ffion," He told her wearily, feeling his age more tonight than he ever had before, "But at least promise me that you will not seek out Howe without reason. The Wardens don't need another strike against them."
Ffion clenched her jaw and didn't look away from the Arl as she reluctantly nodded her head. It was a terrible wrench, promising that, but she could see his side of this and she was loathe to hurt Alistair in his campaign to save Ferelden.
"I promise," She said steadily and then turned to Erlina, "We'll need four sets of armor so we can sneak into the ba... the Arl's estate without suspicion. And can you get one that would fit a Dwarf?"
Erlina's face was lit with relief and happiness and she nodded her dark head eagerly as she started across the room to them.
"I have the armor ready at the estate," She replied, "And there are plenty of sizes. How soon can you come?"
The Warden knew that her chosen few could be ready in the blink of an eye and she pushed a hand to Tilly's head, hating what she was going to have to do with the Mabari.
"Within moments," She finally said, "I'll just need to wake up a few of my companions and we will meet you at the estate. Is there a better entrance to use? Oh, and how soon will the watch be changing?"
"The estate is walled, but there is a man-door on the far end from the front gates. It will open to the gardens and I will ensure that it will be unguarded," Erlina spoke quickly again, but Ffion wasn't having any trouble following her, "And the second watch will be starting in an hour's time, so we must hurry if we are to do it now. With your disguises, there should be no issues. I am a regular sight in the estate and can show you to my lady, but you will have no other friends there."
"No surprise," Ffion muttered, "All right, Erlina, go and get ready for us. We won't be far behind you."
Erlina darted forward to give Ffion's hand a quick wring of thanks and then she disappeared out the door. The Warden turned to Eamon and met his steady gaze. She knew that he didn't like this and she spoke before he could start in on her. He reminded her too much of her father with his inherent care for their well-being and this was hard enough as it was.
"I'm not taking Alistair," She said abruptly, "And please, if he wakes up, don't tell him. The less he knows of this the better. That way it can be said that I acted alone on behalf of the Wardens and his reputation will be unscathed as he goes forward with your plans."
"That's all I can hope for, I guess," The Arl replied, "Since you won't let me talk you out of this."
"Not a chance," She smiled grimly and reached out to press his arm, "Pray for us, Eamon, I'll try to come back with everyone intact."
She left the room with Tilly on her heels and padded down the hall towards her room, stopping at Morrigan, Zevran, and Oghren's to knock on their doors and ask them to meet her, ready to head out, in ten minutes' time. As soon as she had closed her own door again, she threw on her armor and strapped her boots into place before sitting at the vanity, turning up the oil lamp, and grabbing a clean sheet of parchment. Without thinking twice, worried that she would lose her nerve and not do it, she wrote out every detail of the night of her family's massacre, where she was going, and why she had to do it this way; added her best wishes, and signed it with love from a sister in the Darkspawn taint before folding it neatly and tucking it into an envelope. She wrote Alistair's name across this and turned to the big pack that Syd normally carried for her. Unbuckling one of the smaller pockets to slip the letter into, she spotted the beautiful rose that the ex-Templar had so shyly and sweetly given her that night that seemed ages ago now. Tenderly, she pulled it out, pleased that it had kept its shape while it dried. She inhaled its scent and then put it back reluctantly, knowing that it belonged with his letter.
There was a knock on the door that startled her and Zevran opened it a second later. He was followed by Morrigan and Oghren, who was still bleary eyed from sleep and drink. Tilly's tail wagged gently and once again, Ffion's heart twisted.
"Wha's up, boss?" The Dwarf asked.
"We have a job to do," She replied simply and took Tilly's head into her lap, "Queen Anora is being held captive by the bastard Howe and her handmaid was just here with Eamon and I. She said there's a rumor circulating the Arl's estate that Anora is going to be killed and the blame laid on Eamon and the Wardens, completely screwing our chance to come out ahead in the Landsmeet and ensuring that Ferelden doesn't recover from the Blight. I know enough about the bastard to know that this isn't just a rumor. The maid, Erlina, is waiting for us at the estate with uniforms that will let us infiltrate the place without issues. She knows where Anora is kept and we just need to sneak her out and back here. The queen's promised her voice against her father in the Landsmeet and it's worth the risk, to me anyway, to get her out of there."
"Ah, well, I must admit, it did seem like an incomplete day without the usual risk to our necks," Morrigan stretched like a cat as she spoke, but it was clear that she was all for this task of blackmail and deception.
Oghren was up for anything, as usual, and only Zevran knew there was an ulterior motive here. But he knew better than to spotlight that now.
"All right, Tilly," The Warden spoke to her dog, her lips next to her ear, "Stay here, my girl, and look after Alistair. I can't risk you tonight, I'm not going to," The Mabari understood what her lady was saying and, with a soft whine, she licked Ffion's cheek, nuzzling her head a little closer almost as though she was giving her lady a hug, "Be good, girl, and keep them all safe."
They sneaked out of the estate and through the residential area towards the Arl of Denerim's place. The streets were quiet except for the occasional rounds of the night watch and they had no trouble reaching the wall of the Arl's city home. Ffion wasn't sure of her emotions as they slipped through the man-door into the garden and met an impatient Erlina. She was eager to get this done, but it was almost like she was going through it in a dream. Her thoughts were focused on simply reaching Howe and whatever came next was in the Maker's hands.
And then, in a startling moment of clarity as Erlina led them across the garden and towards the hulking shape of the estate, she realized that she wasn't expecting to walk out of here. Leaving Tilly behind, writing the letter to Alistair, and even her companion choice suddenly made sense. Morrigan and Zevran knew most of her history just from guesses and Oghren wouldn't even blink at the discovery of her heritage. And they could break it to the others in the blunt fashion that would make Ffion proud.
Erlina slipped away after hiding them in the shadows of a shed and went to distract the guards from the back entry to the estate's kitchen. They were easily persuaded to leave and the Elf motioned with her hand as she led the guards around the opposite corner of the place. Ffion didn't need to be told twice. She hurried from the shadows, missing Tilly's presence fiercely, and opened the door without a sound. The others were right behind her and they crowded into the little room, waiting for their eyes to adjust in the dim light. They were standing in a mud room and directly ahead was the expansive kitchen. The cooking fires had long ago been banked and were nothing but smouldering coals and there was only one torch in this mud room for them to see by. Erlina slid into the room behind them, shutting the door firmly.
"I did not think I would ever be rid of those two," She said softly, "But I have sent them on a nice little diversion and they will be busy for some time. Your uniforms are here."
She flipped the old discarded rugs on a nearby shelf open and pulled out cleverly hidden breastplates that bore Howe's crest in one corner. Ffion took one and though her distaste for wearing anything belonging to the bastard was strong, her desire for revenge was stronger. Hers was big enough that she could comfortably wear it over her duster leather. Zevran's was the same and Erlina handed them tassets that were full skirts to protect their upper legs. Oghren reluctantly slid out of his breastplate and into the other, which matched the rest of his armor so there was no concern there; and Morrigan's was light armor that matched Ffion's. The witch looked odd in it, never having worn it before, and she couldn't seem to figure out what to do with her gloved and gauntleted hands. In any other situation, Ffion would have found this incredibly amusing, but she really couldn't give it a thought now.
"I have a boy that can return that to the Guerrin estate, if you wish?" Erlina offered to Oghren who was setting his breastplate aside.
"Tha's fine, my thanks," The Dwarf sensed how off Ffion was and actually allowed it to have an effect on him.
When they were ready to depart, Erlina led them through the estate and the armor did its work. None of the handful of guards that were up and about gave them trouble, though Ffion jumped each time they heard the echo of steps coming towards them. She just wasn't sure she would be able to restrain herself if they came face to face with Howe. Erlina was finally quickening her steps as they headed down a long hallway and just before they would have entered the next room, she turned to the right and they ended up in an odd alcove with a door directly ahead. Ffion started for it, but was checked by Morrigan.
"No, hold," She said quietly, "There is a seal over it. 'Tis such that if it is touched, an alarm will be raised."
"Naturally," Zevran said.
He was standing closer to the hallway with Oghren to keep watch and Erlina stepped to the door.
"My lady?" She called softly, "I have brought the Grey Warden."
"Thank the Maker!" Anora must have been waiting right by the door and though her voice was muffled they could hear her just fine, "I'm sorry about this, Warden. I would be greeting you properly, but as you can see, we've had a setback. My host was not content to keep me under heavy guard and had the door locked by magic."
Ffion reached up to tug at a curl, her grey eyes on Erlina.
"Why didn't you mention this before?" She asked.
Erlina's brown eyes were unhappy.
"I was not sure you would come," She replied, "And we must get her out!"
"Don't panic, Erlina," Anora's voice commanded firmly, stopping the Elf before she could bring the whole estate down on their heads, "There is no key that will open this. To break the spell, you need the mage that cast it. He will be somewhere with Howe."
Ffion's eyes lit with a dangerous light. She never would have imagined it would be this straightforward. She stepped a little closer to the door and ignored the way that Zevran's eyes bored into her.
"All right," She answered, "Do you know where he would be if he is not sleeping?"
Anora gave an unladylike snort, but she was beyond caring.
"Howe is a bastard," Her tone was dry and she uttered the curse without a trace of reluctance, "He has taken to spending his evenings in his dungeon. They are at the other end of the estate."
Ffion turned on her heel, her brain a thousand miles away from Anora's problems.
"Good, we'll be back."
"Thank you, Warden, my prayers are with you," Anora's voice was relief itself.
None of them realized that Erlina was not leading them this time; that she wasn't even joining them, and Ffion walked mechanically through the halls. She ignored the other soldiers, her thoughts fixed on reaching the dungeons and finding Howe. Anora's rescue meant nothing to her; she was here for Howe's blood and nothing more.
They had made their way through a little collection of rooms and the few open doors led them to believe that they had reached the sleeping quarters. Ffion wandered down a short hall and found an intricately carved door at the end. With a brief glance at the others, she tried the handle and found it unlocked. They slowly crept further into the room and Zevran closed the door again without a sound. Their luck held and the room they entered had to be Howe's personal quarters. It was empty and across from them, in the wall the bed was pushed against, another door hung partially open. Ffion crossed to this and nudged it further to reveal a flight of stone steps that led down.
"Yeh know wha' tha' says 'bout this one?" Oghren grinned wickedly as Zevran inspected an ornate chest beside the bed and prepared to pick the lock, "Tha' means he needs a li'le extra 'elp in-"
"We understand," Morrigan's cool voice interrupted as Ffion was distracted from their task by the papers Zevran had pulled from the opened chest, "There is no need for details."
"The Wardens' documentation?" Ffion said, crouching beside the Elf and recognizing the Wardens' griffon emblem, "Looks like the bastard wasn't as set against them as the Coward General. Maybe he's looking for a way out in case things go south."
Zevran folded the papers briskly and handed them to his Warden. When her hand closed around them, he tightened his grip, making her glance up at him. His amber eyes were serious and his voice quiet.
"It is only fair to tell us who you are doing this for, Ffion," He told her as Morrigan and Oghren watched closely, "Is this your own personal vendetta, or are you doing this to rescue the queen? We need to know."
Ffion felt a little stab of annoyance and she tugged the papers from him. His gaze was steady and she knew that she would have to say something; he wouldn't make another move without her answer. Shrugging, she finally gave him the answer that she had given Eamon.
"Can we just say that I'm killing two birds with one stone?"
The Elf studied her face, seeing the chasm, and knowing there was nothing he could do to stop her plunge this time. An all too familiar knife went into his heart and gave an awful wrench. He saw in her the same flash that he had seen earlier that day and it made him want to take her in his arms and hold her; just hold her in that room and refuse to let her go down to face her very likely death. But she took his silence as an affirmative answer and got to her feet. Morrigan and Oghren accepted her explanation without trouble and they started after her as she led the way down the stairs.
They found themselves in a small dungeon that extended straight ahead to another flight of steps. There were two cells here, both located in the corner, and the guard that partially dozed in front of one was just as surprised to see them as they were to see him. Ffion had just registered the tug of the taint and then an arm snaked through the bars of the cell behind the guard and grasped the man firmly. It only took a moment for the hidden prisoner to snap his neck and grab the keys at his belt, and before the party could move forward, the cell door was unlocked and shoved open. A tall, broad shouldered man who looked to be middle aged stepped from the cell and Ffion felt the taint swirl strongly. His startling pale grey eyes studied them and his dark brown, slightly reddish hair hung lankly about his neck. He crouched to strip the dead guard of his armor and when he spoke, it was an Orlesian voice hoarse with disuse.
"My thanks, sister; you can never know what music a key turning in a lock makes until you have been imprisoned for weeks on end."
"I can imagine," Ffion replied, getting over her surprise and watching as he fastened the armor in place over his grubby, stained clothing, "My name is Ffion and these are Zevran, Morrigan, and Oghren."
The armor was loose on his rather malnourished frame, but he looked much more put together as soon as he was finished. He straightened again and approached them and they could see the effects of hunger and torture in his wan face. His cheekbones pushed against his skin and his stubble was thick about his chin and neck.
"I am Riordan, senior Warden of Jader," He said, "That part you've already sensed. You... you must be part of Duncan's ranks that were sent to Ostagar. Praise the Maker that some of you survived that massacre."
"And I'm glad to see yet another Warden," Ffion answered with a smile that even felt grim, "Alistair and I were afraid we were the only two left in Ferelden."
"Then Alistair is alive, too," Riordan's smile did wonders for his face, "That is even better news. Ferelden needs him."
Ffion cocked her head, Howe moving from the forefront of her thoughts just slightly as her curiousity for this new Warden took over.
"You know Alistair?" She asked, "The Wardens' world is smaller than I thought."
"And most unpredictable," Morrigan muttered impatiently.
"Indeed it is," Riordan gave the witch a curious look, but finished answering Ffion, "I was present at Alistair's Joining and Duncan was an old dear friend of mine. His loss is felt deeply by many people."
"We are losing time, dove," Zevran reminded Ffion in a whisper, his ears picking up on sounds from the second staircase.
She shook herself and then dug in her pack for those papers that the Elf had discovered.
"He's right," She told Riordan, "We have to keep moving. These papers have the Wardens' griffon emblazoned on them and they should not be in that bastard's hands. Speaking of which, have you seen him tonight?"
Riordan studied the papers and relief flickered over his face. He gave her a nod and waved to the stairs.
"He passed by here not an hour ago," He met her gaze, "And thank you for recovering these. We will need them if we are to rebuild the Wardens, but that is a conversation for another time."
Ffion watched as he bent to take the guard's helm and then offered,
"We are staying at the Guerrin estate, if you need a safe place to rest. The Arl would be more than happy to take you in."
"I am pleased to hear he is well. Ferelden needs men like him, now more than ever," Riordan gave Ffion and her companions a wincing bow and then settled the helm on his head, "Maker guide you, sister, and we will speak at the Arl's estate when you return."
He walked gingerly up the stairs and Ffion felt the taint swirl again before settling. She nodded her head at the others and they plunged down into the lower levels of the dungeons. There were five guards scattered about the hallway that they entered and they were able to take a few steps into this before one of the men took a closer look at them.
"Oi," He said and approached with a frown, "The shif' change ain't fer 'nother half-'our. What're you sods doin' 'ere?"
Ffion stepped forward boldly and spoke before Oghren could pull his axe loose and start hacking away.
"The jailer wanted us," She almost crossed her fingers and she could feel the tingling of magic in the air as Morrigan prepared for the worst, "Something about dumping some bodies."
The guard stared at her and his brows arched a little.
"'The jailer,'" He repeated and his fellows were closing in, "The jailer jus' pass'd through wi' a new one fer the rack. We a'ready got rid o' the bodies."
Morrigan moved before anyone else could. Her staff slammed into the floor and a silent explosion of energy sent the guards scattering in all directions. Three fell to the floor and didn't move. Oghren knocked another unconscious and Ffion's knife took out the fifth just as he opened his mouth to call the alarm. Zevran had already crept to the end of the hallway and checked to make sure the coast was clear and he returned as Morrigan bound the four, still living men with magic. There was a small storage room that was off of this hallway and Ffion motioned to the bodies after the door was opened.
"We'll hide them in here," She said in an undertone, "The longer we can hold off the alarm, the better."
They lugged the men inside and Morrigan gagged them in addition to the invisible bonds. Ffion threw an old rug over the dead man as soon as he was added to the mix and then used a corner of it to clean her knife. They quietly closed the door again and continued down the hall. It was broad and well lit and led straight before twisting to the left and revealing another door. Ffion crept close enough to listen at it while the others kept watch, but only heard the quiet sounds of Mabari whining and growling. They bypassed this and pressed down the hallway to find yet another door. Ffion repeated her tactics and this time heard more guards that were shifting in their sleep with a few random snores. The hallway had made another turn to the left and this was clear too, but Morrigan leaned close so she could whisper in the Warden's ear.
"I have taken care of the doors, Ffion," She said and there was a little surge of power that dissipated as quickly as it was felt, "One could scream bloody murder and not be heard behind those doors."
Ffion gave her a nod, thinking what a perfect example that was, and then froze when a man's groan of pain reached their ears. A sick laugh followed and Ffion had no need to tell her companions to prepare themselves. They each had their weapons grasped tightly and they approached the next doorway with care. The Warden slowly peeked around and into the room when a gruff voice spoke.
"Nothin' like a new one, eh, boys?"
The sight that greeted the Warden chilled her to the bone and she felt her anger spike sharply. A group of eight men surrounded a rack where another young man, stripped to his smallclothes, was stretched. Clearly the man at the lever was the one who spoke and he grinned nastily as he pushed the lever and the young man's groan elevated to a scream. Morrigan had just enough time to seal the other door further down the hall before Ffion tossed her knife and it found its way into the tormentor's eye. He dropped and the others whirled. Morrigan hurled boulders at three that pulled their bows loose and Oghren was a blur of grey armor and flashing axe blade. Zevran melted away and appeared behind the men, his swords gleaming in the light, and Ffion held her own as two of them came at her. The fight was intense and seemed terribly loud, but Morrigan's spell held and it was the witch who took out the last of the guards with a repeat of that blast of energy. None of the men had even considered surrender and Ffion was quick to dash to the young man's aid when he called for help. She cut the thick leather ties that held him while Zevran prowled the room and Oghren stood close by, partially turned to the door in case anyone else investigated.
"What the hell was this?" The young man demanded as Ffion helped him up. His blond hair was tousled and his brown eyes fierce, "Some joke of my father's that got out of hand?"
"What are you talking about?" Ffion replied, mirroring the inherent arrogance that she recognized in a fellow noble's voice, "You think Howe captured you because your father thought it would be funny?"
The man's eyes widened and he sank back down onto the rack just as soon as he stood up.
"Y-You mean to tell me that this was... this was meant to... kill me?"
"Perhaps he does deserve the rack," Morrigan leaned on her staff next to Ffion, her voice disdainful.
"I think that Howe was threatening your life so your father would give Loghain his vote in the Landsmeet," Ffion answered him, positive that Howe would do all of that and more, without even a flash of conscience.
"Bastard!" The man said fiercely.
"Welcome to the club," Ffion's voice was dry and she was about to go on when Zevran interrupted.
"My dove, there is another man here who needs our help."
The Warden turned and took in the rest of the room for the first time. It was oddly shaped, as though two rooms had been rolled into one as an afterthought and Zevran was further into the next room. There were big slabs of foot long spikes on the floor and hanging from the walls; chains suspended from the ceiling, and along a wall close to the door were devices and instruments that stimulated the imagination in a very unpleasant way. The floor was stained with blood and beyond the rack, lying in a heap where he had been tossed, was another young man with a shock of dark red hair.
Ffion had just taken a step towards the Elf when he gently turned the man over and she saw his face. Her heart stopped and she felt the blood drain from her face. She swayed on the spot and barely heard Morrigan's alarmed voice as the witch said her name and took her arm. She could hear her blood rushing in her ears again and, with a cry, she flew over the stone floor, dropped to her knees beside Zevran, and touched Roderick Gilmore's temple with trembling fingers. Her voice was gone and she could feel tears stinging her eyes as she looked him over. The months since she had last seen him had taken their toll, as had Howe's soldiers. He was thin and gaunt, in worse shape than Riordan, and there were old scars interlaced with new injuries up and down his body. Like the young nobleman, he had been stripped to his smallclothes and up his arms, along his shoulders, were what looked like burns. The skin of his wrists and ankles was worn and raw from the leather straps and his nose had clearly been broken, marring his handsome face. One eye was swollen and badly bruised and his breathing was very shallow. Ffion shook from head to toe with rage and grief and she gently pushed his red hair back, forgetting about the others. Her heart skipped again as his eyelids flickered and she almost cried when his green eyes met hers in confusion.
"Rick," She said softly, lowering her head to his, "You're okay now, it's all over."
"'M I dead?" His voice was a broken whisper and he still didn't seem to recognize her.
"No," She said fiercely, pressing her hand to his cheek, "No, Rick, you'll be safe now. I'm getting you out of here."
Gilmore's hand came up quite suddenly as his green eyes flooded with tears of relief and joy and he fumbled to keep her palm pressed against his face. He still had some strength left and he squeezed her hard as he finally realized who she was.
"Fifee," He muttered and even managed a little smile, "Ne'er though' I'd see-"
He broke off with a cough that was thick in his lungs and Ffion's heart wrenched at the blood that stained his lips. She pressed her fingers against his mouth, shaking her head.
"Don't try to talk. Save your strength," She told him gently, "We need to get you out of here."
"Ser," She addressed the young noble who stood uncertainly in the background and ignored the incredulous note in Morrigan's voice, "Strip a couple of those guards and bring their armor here, please."
Oghren was quick to catch on to her plan and he stepped forward to help as well. Together, they stripped two of the guards that Morrigan had taken out since the armor was clean of blood.
"I thin' the boss wants yeh to put tha' stuff on, kid," Oghren said as he carried the other set to Ffion.
"Oh," The noble glanced at the armor and it took a moment for him to get where Ffion and the Dwarf were going with this, "That's not a bad idea."
"You must wait until you are in the fresh air before you pat us or yourself on the back," Zevran advised, watching with an aching heart as Ffion touched Gilmore's cheek again.
"Can you sit up, Rick?" She asked, taking hold of his hand.
It clearly cost him dear and Zevran and Oghren both crouched to help. Even Morrigan sacrificed one of her potions for him and it improved his color and gave him the strength to slip into the thick leather armor.
As soon as he was rather unsteadily on his feet, Gilmore stepped forward and enveloped Ffion in a tight hug, ignoring the pain that had been his everyday life for months. He pressed his cheek to her chocolate curls and crushed her to his chest, not wanting to let her go again. It was a dream come true to see her and his will to live was suddenly revived.
"I can't waste anymore time, Rick," Her voice was muffled against his chest and she allowed him to lean on her as he pulled away, "Ser-"
"My name's Oswyn," The noble said with a little smile, "Son of the Bann Sighard, and I owe you my life."
"Oswyn, then, the watch will be ending soon and you'll want to get out of here before then. And you would be doing me a huge favor if you could take Rick to Arl Eamon's estate," She glanced worriedly up at her friend as he coughed again and swayed, clutching at her, "Can you make it that far?"
Gilmore nodded his head, waiting for the coughing fit to end. He reached out and tugged her shortened ponytail and his voice was weaker when he answered her.
"That'll take some gettin' used to," He said, "And I'll be fine. But why aren't you comin'?"
She hesitated and motioned for Oswyn to step forward and take Gilmore's weight.
"I have something I need to finish," She replied carefully, "Eamon should still be up when you get there and he'll explain everything."
"Fi," Gilmore could clearly see her ulterior motives here, but once again the cough interrupted his words.
Ffion brushed his temple again, happy beyond belief to hear that nickname, and gave him a sad smile.
"Trust me, Rick, I'll be okay. Thanks, Oswyn."
She watched them turn the corner, Gilmore attempting and successfully managing a few steps on his own, and then she turned to her companions, her fury hotter than ever. She wanted Howe's blood and nothing was going to stand in her way.
The knowledge that the bastard had kept her best friend alive all this time simply to torture him was the fuel that she needed and when they passed an open doorway and surprised the three guards lounging inside, she was the most dangerous of her companions. Her swords were blurs and the men didn't stand a chance. Further into this room, there was a short hallway with three cells, all of them occupied. The first was a man that crouched in one corner of the cell, muttering to himself and entirely unaware of them. Ffion's heart, hot with rage and hardening even more by the atrocities she had seen and was seeing, turned to Zevran to ask for a lock pick, but the Elf stepped forward and rattled the keys he had lifted from the jailer. They didn't attempt to speak to the man, just left his door unlocked and moved to the next. In this was a young Elf with dark reddish-brown hair and he blinked up at them in surprise.
"You..." He started uncertainly, "You don't look like any of the Arl's soldiers."
"We aren't," Zevran unlocked his cell, too.
The Elf looked at them, wide-eyed.
"If yeh wanna get outta 'ere, now's yer chance," Oghren told him gruffly, "There's armor yeh can use in the room down th' hall."
"Th-thank you," The Elf stuttered and then bolted from the room as though afraid this was some elaborate joke.
In the last cell was another nobleman that almost dissuaded them from freeing him with his arrogance, but Ffion was out to screw Howe and this was a good way to do it. She let him free, too, and earned another voice against Loghain in the process. And a very strong one, considering that this man was the son of the former Arl of Denerim and rightful owner of the estate he was prisoner of.
They pressed on down the hallway once more, bypassing another storage room, and were still in the clear as far as the guards were concerned. The hall turned back to the left and there were two doors here, straight across from one another. Ffion had no need to listen at these: Howe's voice, along with another, gruffer one carried through the door and made the Warden stiffen. Her grey eyes blazing and all rationalization fleeing her head, she drew her swords and marched to the door, throwing it open without ceremony. She did so so harshly it bounced off the wall and she saw with grim pleasure that she startled the occupants of the room.
Howe was accompanied by three guards and two mages and he glared at them for a moment before realizing they were not his men. Morrigan sealed the opposite door as the Arl's eyes fixed on Ffion and recognition flickered in them. For a split-second, trepidation was clear there and then he straightened himself, arrogance rushing back; and he held one hand up to his men before folding his arms over his chest.
"Well, well, if it isn't Bryce Cousland's little spitfire," He sneered, his voice cold and hate-filled, "All grown up and still playing the boy."
"And if it isn't the bastard Howe, butcher of Highever," Ffion's own voice was ice and her grey eyes had become pure steel, "You can take his title, his lands and estate, even his life, but my father you are not and never will be."
Anger spasmed across Howe's face and he loosed his arms, balling his hands into fists.
"Your father died in disgrace, cursing your name for deserting the family, and your mother was sport for my men before kissing my feet and begging for death. Your brother's corpse is rotting in Ostagar and his brat was burned on the rubbish heap along with that Antivan whore he called a wife," The Arl's face was triumphant as Ffion lost her color and her eyes became shadowed and haunted. Zevran saw the chasm looming and his hands tightened on his blades, waiting for his chance at this bastard while Oghren gave an almost Tilly-like growl and Morrigan's power became tangible around them, "The Couslands have been wiped out and forgotten. All that remains of your pathetic family is a husk of a daughter who will end her life under a rock in the Deep Roads, spitting out more Darkspawn. If she's lucky enough to live that long."
Ffion's breath was shallow and she grabbed hold of her rage to keep the overwhelming grief at bay. She turned her thoughts to the sight of her blades sinking into Howe's throat, what elation that would bring, and then met his gaze squarely. The fire burning in her was hotter than before and she settled into a fighter's stance, her anger deeper than her companions had ever seen, making her look like some sort of vengeful deity.
"Clearly you haven't forgotten them, Howe," She spat and her voice held a calm that was frightening, "They haunt you in your dreams and, if you live through this, they always will. My father was the best thing that ever happened to you and you let your jealousy rule and ruin that, too. I'm here to make sure a Cousland is the last thing you'll see in your pathetic life."
She struck a nerve and Howe's eyes flashed brilliantly. He set his jaw and glared at the Warden, murder in his gaze.
"And there it is," He said and his venom matched hers, "That damn glint in the eye that preceded every Cousland victory over me and mine. Your father might actually be proud, girl, you've made something of your life after all, and me... Well, I just want you dead more than ever."
In the blink of an eye, Howe leaped at Ffion, his weapons in hand and the Warden was just as quick. She ducked around him, staggering one of the two mages with a knife before he could shield himself. She didn't have time to follow through, though. Howe attacked her forcefully and Morrigan took over with the mages as Oghren and Zevran busied themselves with the guards. The Arl was far more experienced than Ffion, of course, but she could dart about much more nimbly and her rage worked in her favor. She was determined to take him down and she didn't care if that meant her own death as well. Which merely made her more unpredictable than ever.
Morrigan morphed into that enormous spider and swarmed the remaining mage and Oghren had taken out one of the guards when Howe got lucky with his little axe. It found its way through Ffion's armor, into her shoulder, and she stumbled back with a cry. She held her own for a time, but the blood was seeping down her arm and making her grip on the sword precarious. Howe pushed her steadily back to the wall and when he felt her weakness, he foolishly began to provoke her.
"Are you going to die like the rest, girl?" He demanded and she was grimly pleased that he was a little breathless, "Cursing your family and begging for death? Or moaning like that whore?"
Ffion felt something snap within her and she forgot the pain and attacked with a renewed vigor, ducking away and turning the tables on him. Howe, expecting an easy victory, was entirely unprepared for this and had no choice but to go purely on the defensive. The others were still busy with the guards that were much harder to kill than they expected and when Zevran let out a cry of pain, it distracted the Warden enough for Howe to hope again. He lunged at her and she reacted purely on instinct, parrying his blow and shoving her red steel blade up. The Arl grunted, his blue eyes meeting hers, wide with pain and shock. Ffion was just as surprised and she let go of the blade before she thought about it. Howe fell to his knees and then dropped back to his elbows, his gaze still murderous.
"Maker... spit on you," He rasped and spit at her himself, "I... deserved... more..."
He tried to say more, but his breath was gone and, with a last shudder, he fell back and went still. Ffion stared at him for a split-second longer, never hearing the complete silence that had fallen behind her, and then she leaned forward and studied the Arl's slack face. She was still losing blood and she felt everything crash down on her; she saw Oren and Oriana's bodies, her parents' last moments, Duncan's death, Isolde's helplessness with Conner and Eamon; the Circle's plight, Niall, the Broodmother and that poor Dwarf, Zathrian and the Lady, Gilmore... And she lost it.
"No!" She cried and was beside herself as slammed her fists down on Howe's chest, punctuating each hit with her words, "No, you bastard! Why!? You selfish, sick son of a bitch! Why!?"
Zevran was the first by her side. He dropped to his knees and risked any damage that might be done to his face by reaching out and snatching at her arms. She instantly turned on him and he was quick to grab her wrists.
"Stop this, Ffion," He said firmly, "You-"
"No!" She exclaimed and twisted her hands, trying in vain to get free, "He has to pay! He-"
"And he has," Zevran didn't have to raise his voice to interrupt her and she went still, meeting his gaze. He saw with a sinking heart that she had finally fallen into that chasm and there was nothing he could do to help her climb out; she would have to do that herself. But at least she looked at him steadily with eyes that were too bright and breathing that was shallow and rapid, "He has paid, love, it is over," He slowly let go of her wrists and reached out to brush the loose curls from her face, "You are done. Think of Chirpy and your man, Rick, they both need you. And the rest of us would be lost without you. This is done, Ffion, and the queen is waiting."
The Warden looked at him for a moment longer and then let out a sigh that deflated her. She pulled away from him, yanked the sword from Howe's body without a flash of emotion, and wiped his blood on what was visible of his pants. Morrigan and Oghren had both wisely separated themselves from this episode and had wandered further into the room. They returned now and even Morrigan looked at Ffion with something like pity. She stepped forward and extended one hand. Without thinking, the Warden held out her own and a ring dropped into her palm. She frowned down at it and then looked up at the witch.
"Is this supposed to mean something to me?" She asked and her voice was dead.
"There is another man in the back by the name of Irminric; a Templar that is suffering from prolonged lyrium exposure," The witch's tone was cool and calm as always, "He has no wish to sneak out with us and instead asked if we could give that ring to his sister, Alfstanna, the Bann of Waking Sea. She is part of the influx of nobles here for the Landsmeet and since I am sure you would have agreed to help, I did so on your behalf."
"Right," Ffion said with a faint smile and she heard her exhaustion, "Of course, thanks, Morrigan. Now let's go and get Anora out of here."
They sneaked back through the halls, Ffion refusing to look down at Howe again as they left the room, but purposefully treading across his fingers. There was no interference and they were able to make it back to Anora's room without issues. The Warden also kept an eye out for Gilmore or Oswyn, but there was no sign of them either and she held out hope that they had gotten away safely. The magic seal on the door was gone and when Ffion knocked and whispered that it was them, Erlina tugged it open. Anora was standing just behind her, decked out in Howe's armor like the rest of them, and she seemed just as self-conscious as Morrigan was at the beginning of this.
"My thanks, Warden," She said to Ffion and then added in somewhat of a rush because she felt she had to, "You were the only one I could trust. And this very... uncomfortable armor is my only chance to get to Eamon. If Howe's men find me, I will be killed; and if those few loyal to me discover me, they will escort me back to the palace and my father... Who, I'm afraid, will also have me killed. So I will follow your lead, Warden."
Ffion was on the verge of shrugging her shoulders and then rethought that. Instead, she turned and left the little alcove, finishing this with Anora because she owed Alistair that much. She was beyond caring after that. She didn't want to go back to the estate and Eamon, where more questions would be bantered about and decisions would have to be made; she didn't want to worry about the Blight anymore, she didn't have the strength for it. Besides, she had done her part. She had worn herself ragged, tearing throughout the countryside, garnering support, fulfilling treaties and agreements, making those damn deals... and she was done. That revelation of actually wanting to die here was stronger now and she hated the fact that she was walking out with nothing more serious than a blow from an axe. Which was still as numb as her heart, though she could feel the blood slowly trickling down her arm. And then they passed by the front hall that held the main doors of the estate and none of that was going to matter anymore.
"Warden," A stern voice called and, as a reflex, Ffion stopped and turned to it. Instantly, her companions were pulling loose their various weapons and jostling Anora and Erlina behind them. Lined in front of the gates and forming a human wall was about a dozen soldiers and standing at the forefront was the tall, dark-haired warrior that had spoken. Her eyes were hard as she studied the party, "If you turn and run, things will only be worse."
Ffion held up a hand to those behind her and motioned for them to lower their weapons.
"Put them away," She commanded quietly and didn't look away from the woman. Her heart wasn't listening to her brain, which was shouting furiously that what she was thinking of doing was a death-wish. She knew what she wanted, "Serah Cauthrien, I'm guessing? I know why you're here and let me just offer one thing. I'm the one that killed Howe. My companions helped me sneak in here, but I dealt the killing blow. If I surrender to you, here and now, will you promise that they walk free? This was a Warden call and I am the only Warden present."
This surprised Cauthrien and it took her a moment to find her voice again.
"Ffion?" Zevran was alarmed, but if he was being honest with himself, he shouldn't have expected anything else, "Pet, what are you thinking?"
"She's not," Oghren growled and hadn't put his axe away, "C'mon, boss, af'er what we jus' did, wha's a few more?"
"No," She said firmly, "I'm not going to give Loghain or anyone else a reason to spread lies about us. Cauthrien doesn't know the whole tale and I won't have it start out with any falsehoods."
"Loghain only wants the Wardens," Cauthrien cut in, still puzzled by this woman's actions, "The others are free to leave. You have my... very surprised thanks, Warden; it is better this way for everyone."
Ffion shrugged her shoulders and handed Morrigan Irminric's ring again.
"I live to serve," She replied dryly and then added to her companions, "Look after Rick for me and make sure that the Templar's sister gets that ring."
For a moment, she was afraid that they weren't going to stand down peacefully, but Cauthrien's men were closing in and taking her swords and knives from her. Loghain's right-hand stood at attention before her and said importantly,
"Warden, you are charged with the murder of Arl Rendon Howe and will be imprisoned at Fort Drakon until your judgement and sentence is handed down to you."
Ffion was led away from her companions thinking that maybe she had acted a little too recklessly.