Shades of Grey and Black

A Deal Heading South and More Assassins... Oh Joy!

Wynne was right, of course, and Ffion gathered her troops in Eamon's office to discuss how to go about gathering evidence from the Alienage. Darroch also joined in and lent his own expertise. He advised them to seek out the city Elves' elder, Valendrian, who would be able to instruct them on the protocol in the Alienage. Alistair, in spite of Ffion and Eamon's protests, was not about to be talked out of going along this time and his paranoia concerning Ffion's well-being was contagious. She had the whole of her companions wanting to accompany her and, after a few half-hearted attempts to dissuade them and Zevran's advice of giving it up, she allowed it. Eamon shared Wynne's initial reluctance for letting Ffion go, but he was pleased with these arrangements; and while the companions were all preparing themselves, Erlina knocked on Ffion's door and requested her presence in Anora's quarters.

The Warden trailed after the Elf and found Anora standing at one of the wide windows. She turned as Ffion was admitted and the Warden could see that there was something fairly serious on the queen's mind.

"My thanks, Warden," Her cultured voice said, "I know that you are getting ready to depart and I had to speak with you before things went any further."

Ffion spread her arms as Tilly leaned against her.

"Well, here I am," She replied, "What's on your mind?"

"It's about the Landsmeet," Anora began hesitantly.

The Warden was quick to suspect her reluctance and her grey eyes leveled on Anora.

"We had a deal, highness," She replied firmly, feeling that brand more with each passing moment, "My companions and I risked our own lives to save yours. Are you reneging, now, at the worst time?"

She ignored Erlina's indignant stiffening behind her and the way the Elf's brown eyes flashed. Anora's back also stiffened at the cool, commanding note in the Warden's voice.

"Just listen to what I have to say, please," Anora replied and she disguised the effort to control her anger with an enviable expertise.

Ffion's brows arched and she folded her arms over her chest, nodding at the queen for an answer.

"I know what I promised," Anora began carefully and the Warden could hear all of the learned diplomacy in her voice, "Alistair is a good man and fierce warrior. The Wardens benefited greatly when he was added to their ranks, but in all honesty, we could surely both agree that he is not a ruler. He just does not have the passion needed. You do agree, of course?"

Ffion bristled at the slight and she couldn't stop her thoughts from drifting back to just a few hours ago, hearing Alistair's near confession, and seeing the fierce desire in those honey colored eyes... No passion? Her mind repeated. If only you knew! She answered the queen before her face flamed anymore and the situation got awkward.

"Alistair is Maric's son and he's growing," She said, rather surprised at her own calm, "Ferelden needs him."

Anora pulled herself upright, her blue eyes cold, and she transformed into the ice queen that Ffion had always heard of.

"And I am Cailan's wife," Though her calm matched the Warden's, her tone was sharp and almost petulant, "And I have been ruling this country for the whole of our marriage. What Ferelden needs is a strong ruler with experience."

It was on the tip of Ffion's tongue to put the first part of Anora's sentence in the past tense and she bit it back. But she instantly thought of Loghain's imperious words: Ferelden has a strong leader: its queen... and she wasn't about to let Anora walk all over her as she was far too accustomed to doing.

"And Alistair will fulfill that," She replied and loosed her arms to spread her hands, "We won't agree on this subject, highness, so it's useless to continue this. You made a promise; we had a... a deal and I have held up my end of it. I'm holding you to your word because I would expect nothing less, but for now, for the sake of time, let's put this discussion on hold until we get back. Are you okay with that?"

Anora studied the Warden, wanting to argue, but Ffion was earnest and honest, and the queen had no choice but to concede.

"Very well," She said, "We have an agreement."

Ffion nodded and dipped a bow to Anora, relief flickering across her face. She knew that she and the queen would have been stuck at loggerheads for ages, both of them being too stubborn to back down. Anora was entirely too used to getting her own way and Ffion was as well, if she was being honest with herself. But for now, they had a deal... Damn that word! Ffion thought fiercely and didn't let Anora see how frustrated she was with this situation.

"Thank you, highness," She said instead, "Just hold that thought and we'll discuss this later. I can't waste any more time in dealing with the Alienage."

"I can tell you now that whatever is troubling the Elves will have something to do with Howe. Father gave him responsibility of the Alienage when things became too heavy."

Anora spoke calmly, easily, and Ffion felt a stab of pain go through her back at the name. She clenched her hands briefly and heard Tilly whine questioningly.

"No surprise," She said dryly, trying to force herself to relax again, "The bastard had his slimy hands in everything. Thanks."

She was already to the door when Anora's true motivations were revealed.

"Remember that, Warden, when the time comes," The practiced diplomacy was back, "That I was the one to help you."

Ffion's anger tempered under disdainful amusement. Her grey eyes were unreadable and steady as she replied,

"And you as well, highness, please keep in mind how we have helped you."

She turned and left the room, heading down the hall to finish getting ready. For the first time she had to wonder if freeing Anora had really been in their best interests. She had been taking Eamon's work with Alistair for granted, knowing the Arl was the best one to train the ex-Templar in the ways of the court and politics. And she had never considered Anora's reluctance to stepping down when the time came. Which was silly. There was no reason for the queen to step demurely to the side after she had grown so accustomed to her lavish, luxurious lifestyle. But in Ffion's own defense, her mind had been very far from the rescue. In fact, with the way she had felt that night, she probably wouldn't have seen Alistair and Sten if they had danced the Remigold in Howe's courtyard... wearing dresses.

And of course, this led to a whole new set of problems to consider and one great hurdle.

She winced. That was cruel. Alistair, a hurdle? As though he was an object and not a strong, fine young man who was steadily winning her to him, mostly without her noticing. His warmth and tenderness, his obvious care for her, was making one thing increasingly clear to her. She could not deny her own growing feelings for him. She still wondered why she cut short that moment in Gilmore's room, and whatever had been woken within her when he went for that kiss and nearly confessed was pacing her head, demanding to know why she refused to jump at this. But she just wasn't -

"Ffion?" A voice interrupted her thoughts and she glanced up in surprise, realizing she had stopped walking. Eamon smiled at her gently, "Is everything all right? You are quite preoccupied."

She returned the smile half-heartedly and then decided to tell him what was on her mind.

"I guess I'm just concerned about the impact this may have on Alistair. I made an assumption about Anora's loyalties that I never should have," She concluded, dropping one hand to Tilly's head. Her grey eyes met his and she added slowly, "In fact, there were a lot of things I shouldn't have done that night, but..."

Her voice trailed off and she gave a rather self-deprecating shrug.

"But you had other business on your mind," The Arl finished and his voice was very kind.

"That's putting it mildly," Ffion spoke dryly, not wanting her emotions to get the better of her now, "So what do you think, Eamon, about Anora, I mean? Does this mean trouble for Alistair?"

Eamon spotted movement over the Warden's shoulder and watched as the burly Dwarf joined Zevran in his saunter toward them. Knowing that the Elf could show surprising tact and would give them privacy, he turned his attention back to Ffion, reading the care and concern on her open, honest face. His thoughts wandered to the joining of Highever and the Theirin throne and what a powerhouse that would be... and then he came back to reality.

"Concerning Anora, Ffion, there is one thing you must remember," He leveled his eyes on her, but the stern gleam was all for Anora and not for her, "She is a politician above all else and when favorable winds blow, she has no scruples whatever about taking full advantage, no matter who she might hurt. Her first priority is her own well-being and it's no more complicated than that. She is, in short, her father's daughter."

Ffion studied his face for a moment before smiling faintly.

"So in other words, what you're telling me is to watch my back."

It wasn't a question and Eamon didn't get a chance to respond.

"Well that is why you have me, my dove," Zevran's honey tones were as suggestive as ever though the amber eyes seemed to have lost some of the overt hunger for her only to be replaced with tenderness.

"In that case we shouldn't waste any more time, should we?" The Warden returned and her eyes held some of their old spark for a moment, "Give Tilly and me about five more minutes and we'll head out. Thanks, Eamon."

"Are you sure you are ready, Ffion?" Zevran quizzed, looking at her in concern, "You look quite tired still."

She gave him a brief, appreciative smile, sure that he would suggest the two of them return to her room if the Arl and Oghren weren't present.

"I have a job to do," She replied rather wryly as she realized she was heading down that same familiar, very well-worn path, "I'll rest when it's over."

She disappeared into her room before he could pose any other arguments and five minutes later, the companions headed out of the estate and across the city towards the Alienage. Ffion fell into step beside Sten, allowing Wynne and Alistair to take the lead. The big Qunari's stalwart presence was reassuring and Zevran stepped gracefully beside her. The others closed ranks behind her and reminded her forcefully of traipsing through Orzammar after destroying the Carta. She sincerely hoped this would be the last fight she entered when only at half-strength. Wynne, leading the way, seemed to know exactly where she was headed and she glanced over her shoulder as she diverted from the main road.

"There's a shortcut through a few lesser traveled alleys," She said, "Darroch is a wealth of information of the most random sort. He said it would be wise to keep... well, let's face it. We have to keep you away from the guards, Ffion, and he provided us a way."

"He's certainly something," Ffion agreed softly, touched by their joint concern.

Alistair gave her a warm, gentle smile and she felt her cheeks flush. The ex-Templar slowed his step and would have fallen in with her had Zevran not suddenly stiffened and dropped one hand to her forearm, bringing everyone to a halt. They were at the bottom of a flight of steps in the small, rather dark alley, and the passage to the next side street was through the doorway above them. But between them and the freedom it represented was a black haired man with skin that held the same golden, sun-kissed look that Zevran's had. He grinned dangerously down at them, his gaze fixed on their Elf.

"Get behind me, Ffion," Zevran said in a stern voice, his amber eyes devoid of any of the usual charm.

Ffion blinked at him, her grey eyes flickering up to the man ahead.

"What-"

"You're a tough one to find anymore, Zevran," The man said, interrupting Ffion. His Fereldan accent was thick and so was the blatant animosity, "Trust you to hide with powerful friends."

Zevran pushed his Warden behind him as Wynne and Alistair fell back as well. Every one of the companions was centering around their leader as more people sprang up and surrounded them. Wynne and Morrigan were already charging the atmosphere and Asala made a musical sound as Sten slid it from the sheath; Oghren's gloves rapped sharply against the axe handle when he flipped it into his hands and Leliana's bow stretched tight with a slight creak of the supple wood.

"So you have come for me at last, Taliesin," Zevran replied and his voice was as cold as his eyes, "I have been waiting for you."

The others frowned as Ffion stiffened just like the Elf. She could feel Morrigan and Alistair's gazes especially as Zevran and Taliesin glared darts at one another. Tilly growled furiously when Taliesin's allies closed ranks around them. It was roughly twenty against their nine and Ffion would be lying if she said that wasn't a concern. But her attention was taken up by Zevran's former comrade and nothing else mattered at the moment.

"I came to tell you that you have an opportunity to come back to us, Zevran," Taliesin was saying, his pale hazel eyes shuttered and their expression less than promising to the companions, "I know why you left and it's not too late to return. Come with me now and we will make up a story. Let things go back to the way they were; it's ridiculous to keep up this farce. All we have to do is finish the job you came here to do. Which shouldn't be a problem now."

Ffion held up a hand to her companions to keep them from interrupting and didn't look away from Zevran. She ignored the implication of Taliesin's words; they were outnumbered and that was alarming, but that hadn't ever kept them from success before. Besides, the Warden had more pressing issues to worry about. Zevran's amber eyes were still fixed on Taliesin and she didn't like the longing she saw there. She took a half-step forward and her shoulder brushed Alistair's.

"Zevran, please, don't," She said quietly, the plea meant for his ears only.

He cocked his head and his eyes met hers for a brief moment. Tipping his lips ever so slightly as a sign for her to relax, he turned back to answer Taliesin but was too late. The Crow was looking past Zevran, smiling wickedly at Ffion.

"I can sympathize with your desires," He said, his voice suggestive, "Zevran is quite talented; I understand why you'd be reluctant to let him go... not that we're giving you much choice."

Ffion's eyes narrowed and she drew herself upright. One of her hands dropped to her belt as Sten, Morrigan, and Oghren turned to the assassins that were creeping up behind them. Her grey eyes flashed and she was completely her old self in that moment.

"That's a mistake," Alistair offered and his sword was in his hand.

"Zevran no longer belongs to anyone but himself," Ffion added and felt the Elf's warm glance, "And if you want him back, well, it'll have to be through us."

"The dove's right, my old friend," Zevran put in and Taliesin's eyes flickered at Ffion's given endearment, "I'm sorry, but the answer's no. It is a pity it has to end this way; we were friends once, and more. But the Crows are behind me and I will not allow you to take the Warden from me like you took... her. Go home, Taliesin, or we will have no choice but to kill you."

"Perfect," Taliesin answered, his face twisting into sick delight at the prospect of what he believed would be a bloodbath, "You'll get the chance to try."

Before he even raised his arm in a signal, the knife left Ffion's fingers and the man that had perched next to him was falling back, the pretty hilt jutting from his eye. The fight was on and Zevran disappeared from her side and faced off with Taliesin. Morrigan and Wynne were standing practically back to back as the assassins advanced on the party. Archers lined the wall beyond the warriors that moved forward and Sten carved a path through them while Leliana picked the archers off as quickly as she could. Taliesin didn't have a mage fighting with them and this worked in the companions' favor.

Ffion employed one of the little tricks that Zevran had given her and tossed the small pottery ball at the feet of the men making for the Elf's unprotected back. Thick white smoke enveloped the two warriors and she ran up the steps, slipped unseen amongst them, and dispatched them. When the smoke cleared, she sidestepped swiftly to avoid Taliesin's rush at Zevran and whirled as Alistair shouted her name. Two more of the assassins were beating him back and his face was worried. She took out one of the warriors with her knife and then threw her swords up as a woman clashed against her.

The archers were whittled down to three and Morrigan hurled boulders at the warrior that threw himself at Oghren. Their odds had evened out now and Wynne took the last archer down when an assassin charged Leliana and she was forced to fight hand-to-hand. Her knife blade flashed wickedly in the poor light and the remaining assassins cried out in horror as Morrigan transformed into a spider and swarmed two. The rest abruptly turned about and took off running only to be picked off by Leliana who had knocked the warrior into Sten's deadly path and transferred back to her bow without a misstep.

The assassin that Ffion was up against was just as fast as she was and the fight was too even for either one to gain the upper hand. Tilly charged up the steps and collided with the woman's legs and Alistair was right behind her. He swung his sword rather lazily, separating the woman's head from her body. Blood pooled down the steps, but Ffion ignored this. She whirled as Taliesin and Zevran's blindingly fast duel came at her and she meant to duck away from the assassin, but wasn't quick enough. She felt his arm loop around her waist, pulling her tightly against him, and holding her in front of his body like a shield. Zevran's dual blades were slicing through the air at her and she squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for the blow.

"Maldición!"

The Elf's curse was barely audible and he dropped the blades, but couldn't stop his momentum. He collided with them and they tangled together, slipping in the woman's blood and toppling backwards down the stone steps. Ffion, sandwiched between the two of them, had some protection from the sharp, hard edges of the stairs, but she could feel every jolt go through her body as they hit. They came to a halt just as soon as they had fallen and she heard a sickening crack beneath her. She was lying on top of Taliesin's limp body and Zevran was a heavy weight against her. She blinked her eyes open, feeling a sharp stab each time she took a breath and wondering if her ankle was broken as pain radiated from it. Worry coursed through her and she reached up to touch Zevran's blond head as the others rushed towards them, hardly remembering to take out the remaining assassins.

"Zev-"

"Well, that was unexpected, yes?" His voice was rather thick in her ear as he interrupted her, "Though I am not regretting this predicament we find ourselves in. There is no one else I'd rather lie here with."

Ffion felt her cheeks flush and was thrilled that he seemed to be none the worse for wear. He lifted his head to grin down at her and blood was matted in his blond hair from an ugly gash. She felt Alistair coming close and Wynne was already beside them when she replied.

"Yeah, well, you're not lying on a dead man."

"Ah, poor Taliesin," Zevran truly meant the words though they sounded more than a little clipped. He lifted himself off the Warden and took her arm to help her up, "He was a fool to think he could best you, yes?"

She clung to his arm as her ankle protested violently to her weight and Alistair's hand instantly slid under her other elbow. Giving the ex-Templar a smile of thanks, she glanced at Wynne.

"People will continue to believe they can best you," Sten's deep voice cut in, "It seems to be your human nature: the surety that those in power must be destroyed. And fortunately for you, kadan, this practice seems to be a death wish for whoever undertakes it."

"Yeh gotta point there, horn 'ead," Oghren agreed.

Wynne cast her healing magic over Zevran and Ffion jointly before turning her attention to Morrigan. The witch was herself once more and had taken an axe to the hip. She was limping heavily and her face was pale with the blood loss. Wynne's magic did the trick however and Morrigan improved as Zevran and Ffion did; though Alistair was reluctant to let go of his fellow Warden and remained close by her elbow. They surveyed the damage as Zevran crouched beside Taliesin's prone form.

The assassin had clearly broken his neck in the fall and his head was cocked at an unnatural angle. Zevran reached out with one hand and closed the staring eyes. He remained in a crouch, studying his former comrade's face as the others dispersed a little to loot through the bodies. Only the Wardens remained close, with Tilly, and he addressed Ffion without looking up at her.

"If there were any to begin with, there will be no missives on the bodies," His voice was almost gentle and he didn't have to raise it to be heard, "Rule one in the Crows: burn the letters."

"You don't think this was a Crow hit?" Alistair asked curiously.

"Not officially, no. I am sure that my former employers are desirous to know whether I am still alive, but Taliesin would have volunteered to find me without much encouragement," He put one hand to Taliesin's shoulder and then got to his feet, facing the Wardens fully, "This means that they will assume, once more, I have died with these fellows. It means that I am free to move as I please, so long as I disappear."

Ffion leveled her gaze at him, feeling a pang go through her at his words, or rather the implication. She didn't want to lose him, not now that they had been through so much together, and she was relieved to have Alistair's steady presence beside her.

"And a Warden's path isn't conducive to a disappearing act," She replied and could hear the sadness there.

Zevran gave her a smile, his amber eyes tender. He bowed a little, charming as ever.

"I am still your man, dove," He told her, "And I have sworn to follow you until you see fit to release me. My presence will increase the Crows' scrutiny, but if you are willing to take the chance, I am yours."

Ffion smiled beatifically at him and Alistair took it upon himself to answer the Elf.

"Then let's move on."

When Ffion turned the same smile to him, he felt that the wrench of those words was well worth it. The others gathered round again, heeding Zevran's command to leave the bodies. He knew that they would disappear within a matter of a few hours and so it wasn't worth their trouble or time. Clouds were rolling across the sky, obscuring the weak sunlight and there was no need to linger longer than necessary.

"Yeh still thinkin' alleys'r the bes' idea?" Oghren asked as Wynne ducked into a fourth and they crossed through unmolested.

Ffion shrugged her shoulders, feeling tired, as Wynne sent the Dwarf her patient smile. Alistair frowned down at his fellow Warden and Sten moved a little closer while the enchanter answered the question.

"You will have to take your concerns to Zevran," She replied easily and the section of town that they entered seemed a little more questionable.

Morrigan's fingers were sparking with power as a group of thuggish looking youths stared openly at her and Zevran allowed a chuckle that held more than a little self-loathing. His amber eyes danced as he looked down at Oghren and clapped his hand against the Dwarf's shoulder.

"It is as I said, my smelly friend, a displaced Crow draws unsavory attention," He said, "Add this to your travels with marked Wardens and you lose hope quickly, yes?"

"Agreed," Leliana put in, "Though we must put our focus on keeping said Warden safe, no?"

Ffion rolled her eyes as they turned another corner and saw the large, foreboding gates of the Alienage ahead. She lengthened her stride to fall in beside Wynne and let out a relieved sigh when it was clear the gates were hanging open.

"Stop treating me like a chicken without a head," She said as sharply as she could manage; she loved their concern, "I would think you'd figure out by now that's far from the truth."

They weren't given a chance to continue that conversation. The Alienage was dark and dingy never mind the Elves' work to keep things tidy. And it was no mystery as to why it looked as it did. There was little doubt that Denerim's officials kept the Elves downtrodden as a mean to control them and even this remote, tucked away corner of the city was a gift to placate them. But even as her heart twisted with pity, Ffion kept her mind on their task and fell in beside Wynne again while the enchanter made her way toward the massive tree that towered in the middle of the Alienage. It seemed so out of place and odd; this thick, lush foliage that thrived in a dank little village, but its beauty was intimidating.

The Elves that were going about their day gave Ffion's party curious or suspicious glances, but they didn't provoke them. A companionable silence had fallen over everyone and lasted until Morrigan began speaking, to Zevran of all people.

"There is something I am curious about, Zevran," Her cool voice was almost amiable, but the superiority was impossible to lose.

"You know the answer is yes, lovely," Zevran purred, back to his old self after the unexpected roller-coaster that confronting Taliesin put him through.

Power crackled from the witch's fingertips and she glared at him.

"One finger, Elf, and you lose your head."

The others chuckled at that, not used to seeing Zevran struck down so quickly. The Elf himself merely shrugged his shoulders and mocked disappointment.

"And I am quite fond of my head," He said with a long-suffering sigh, "Very well, Morrigan, what do you wish of me?"

Even that managed to sound suggestive and Alistair wondered how he did it. Charm and flattery were second nature to Zevran and the ex-Templar couldn't help but be a little envious of that. His gaze flickered to the back of Ffion's chocolate head. It would be so nice to be able to say just the right thing to Ffion, the way the Elf did; making that pretty flush creep across her cheeks and her grey eyes become soft and glowy... And then Morrigan answered Zevran and her words brought that train of thought to a halt.

"Apart from the leader of that foolish little band and perhaps four others, most of your assassins were Elves," She said with a frown, "Is this a common practice?"

Before Zevran could answer Alistair leaped onto the witch's words, never passing up the opportunity to tease and provoke her. His honey eyes widened and he spoke with comical disbelief.

"Wait! The great Morrigan admitting that she doesn't know something? We have to hold everything and find the Chantry, Ffion, they need to know this. Maybe they'll turn today into a holiday: Know Nothing Day? Witch Fails Day...? Oh, we'll have time to think of something, this has to be a day for the ages."

Oghren grinned while Sten muttered under his breath; Wynne looked amused, and Leliana and Zevran laughed. Morrigan turned the full force of her glare on the ex-Templar and the magic was tangible as it surrounded her. Ffion sent Zevran a pleading look, knowing that Morrigan was getting quicker about casting before Alistair could use his Templar trick to stop her and she didn't want her fellow Warden's life to be cut tragically short. Leliana came to her rescue.

"Aesthetics," She managed between giggles.

Zevran had composed himself and he nodded at the Orlesian.

"She is right," He agreed, rather brusquely as though this wasn't exactly a topic he wanted to discuss, "In Antiva and several other nations there is a long-held belief that humans find Elven faces beautiful. When you work as I did and they do, you must know a target's weakness, yes? Fondness for anything is exploitable; fondness for beauty? Ah, that is deadly."

Ffion looked at the Elf speculatively, her eyes pitying, but Sten was the first to speak.

"Your race, beautiful?" His deep voice was unimpressed and his violet eyes flickered over Zevran before glancing disdainfully about the Alienage, "There is nothing to your people. I find this incredibly difficult to believe."

Ffion wasn't convinced Sten was being serious, but her attention was diverted from the shock that the Qunari might actually be joking. Her eyes fixed on the street ahead and a frown had begun to crease her brows as she pressed on and Zevran grinned mischievously at Sten. Morrigan fastened her eyes on him with a particularly appreciative expression.

"Don't judge so quickly without having... hands on experience, my dour friend," Zevran told the Qunari with that same familiarity that made both Sten and Oghren uncomfortable.

Morrigan glossed over this.

"He cannot help wanting perhaps a bit... more in his bed," The witch said smoothly, as suggestive as the Elf.

Oghren looked up at her with near reverence, Zevran gave her a knowing wink, while Leliana giggled at Alistair's coloring cheeks and Sten moved to stand with Ffion and Wynne. Not because he was embarrassed, but because the Warden had long ago stopped paying attention and her soft exhalation brought them all back to the reality of what they were supposed to be accomplishing today.

"Uh oh."

They had reached the Alienage's square and the branches of the vhenadahl tree blotted out the looming grey clouds. There were several small homes ringing the square, nestled amongst a few bigger buildings, but it was the one ahead that held Ffion's attention. It was long and low with heavily shuttered windows and a group of roughly twenty Elves gathered at the locked doors. Two mages garbed in Tevinter robes were standing guard here and answering frantic questions that the Elves threw at them. One female's voice rose above the others and rang through the square.

"Oh, so you're helping us now, shem? Just like you helped Elder Valendrian and my uncle Cyrion? The only thing you helped them do was never to be seen again!"

"Uh oh," Leliana echoed Ffion's concern with a sigh.

They watched warily, wondering if the mages would lose their patience and what would happen then. But instead of this, a small dark haired Elf darted forward through the crowd and tugged the one who spoke from the throng while their fellows took up her protest and began shouting at the mages. The dark Elf was vaguely familiar to Ffion and when he escaped the press, she recognized him with a hot rush through the brand on her back. Before the others could stop her, she started forward, hurrying after the pair with Tilly on her heels.

"Please, wait a minute," She called softly, not wanting to draw any more attention to them.

Though the dark haired one recognized her instantly and tightened his hold on the arm that he clasped, his companion had no such qualms about remaining inconspicuous and she whirled on Ffion, her hazel eyes fiery.

"And you, too, shem? You want to help these bastards with their sick, twisted game? Let's hide the Elves! No one will care! How about it? You want to tell me that you're trying to help, too?"

"Actually, she is," Alistair's voice was cold as he came close to Ffion.

The male Elf tugged at the girl's arm.

"Stop, Shianni, this is her," He said sternly in a voice that was much stronger than Ffion remembered, "She's the one who saved me from Howe. It's the Warden."

Thankfully he kept his voice quiet, knowing firsthand how important it was to keep attention from the guard to a minimum. Shianni softened a bit; her eyes became a little less stormy anyway. They flickered over Ffion and the rest of the companions rather disdainfully still, but her voice had tempered.

"Well, then you're all right, I guess," She said grudgingly, "Soris told me you didn't even ask questions, just let him out of that prison. That's decent, for a shem."

Ffion knew that 'shem' or 'shemlin' held the same derogatory meaning for humans that 'knife-ear' did for Elves. She wasn't offended though. The Elves had every reason in the world to show humans nothing but poison.

"Well, thanks," The Warden replied, appreciating Shianni's blunt way of speaking, "And Alistair's right, we did come to help, no matter what you might think. We've been speaking with the physician Darroch."

"Darroch?" Both Elves repeated the name in unison.

"Is he here?" Shianni asked, her gaze going over them again.

"No," Ffion answered, "It's dangerous enough for me to be walking around in the open. If Darroch was here, he would probably be executed on the spot."

Shianni grudgingly gave her the point, ruffling her bright red hair with one hand as Alistair cut in.

"He told us that we should try to get in touch with the Elder Valendrian," He said and glanced between the pair, "But did we hear you correctly? He's been... taken?"

Shianni gave a solemn, grim nod.

"Along with our uncle Cyrion," Soris added, his large brown eyes saddened, "The Tevinters made a claim a few weeks ago that some sort of plague was sweeping through the Alienage and they keep pulling our people off the street for isolation to prevent its spreading."

"They say that they're hospitalizing them for our benefit; that they're curing them, but they haven't released them."

"Shianni-" Soris protested.

"Two out of two dozen means nothing!" Shianni snapped impatiently, "They're taking our people, cousin, and someone has to answer for it. They can't keep treating us as though we are disposable property!"

Wynne watched the exchange silently, a frown creasing her face, and she spoke into the heavy, tense silence that fell between the Elves.

"You don't think..." She hesitated, glancing from one to the other, "You're thinking a possible slave trade."

Ffion's brows arched up at the enchanter.

"'Slave trade?'" She repeated, "In Ferelden? Come on, Wynne, Loghain wouldn't-"

"Wouldn't he?" Leliana interrupted, "He is desperate, no? You cannot think that he would let something like morals stand in the way of accomplishing his quest."

"I am a perfect example of this, yes?" Zevran agreed with a winning smile.

"Sure, what's a few Elves in the larger scope of things?" Shianni's voice was very bitter.

"Especially when you can purchase an ally," Morrigan said coolly, her gold eyes unreadable.

Ffion was still doubtful and then she remembered Loghain's impassioned words to Eamon what seemed like years ago now: There's nothing I would not do for my homeland. Alistair must've had the same thought. His honey eyes were somber when she glanced up into them.

"I don't think I'd put it past him, Ffion," He said quietly, trying hard not to stare at the curve of her mouth, "We need to help them."

She nodded firmly, ignoring Morrigan's sigh and looking at Soris and Shianni.

"And that's obviously the hospice?" She asked and then added after the affirmative, "Is there another entrance?"

"Yes," Soris answered rather nervously, "But they usually keep it guarded; just one guard though."

Ffion's expression turned thoughtful. She eyed the building and knew how foolish it would be to storm the front doors. She would wind up getting a lot of innocent Elves killed if she did so and she tugged on a loose curl as she made up her mind.

"Alistair, Wynne, Zevran, and Sten, stay here with Shianni and watch those mages," She said, "The rest of you, come with Soris and me around to the back. We'll signal you."

She added the last a little impatiently as Zevran and Alistair began to protest. They both felt the sting of her exclusion. It had only happened once to Zevran who had ignored the command anyway; and Alistair didn't want to let her out of his sight again, considering what had happened last time. If she didn't come back...

"Ffion-"

"I'm sure," She interrupted Wynne firmly and then gave them all a smile, "Trust me, it'll work out. We'll be right back."

They watched her slip away with the others, Soris leading them around the back of the building.

"I suppose it does make sense," Sten offered as Alistair watched her unhappily.

"How so?" Zevran asked curiously as he leaned on the wall of the building they gathered against and unconsciously let his fingers wander to his belt and that lock of chocolate hair.

"Two humans, an apostate witch, and a Dwarf-" Sten began.

"Sounds like the start of a bad joke," Alistair muttered, unable to relax.

"If the guard is to be deceived, this group would accomplish it easily," The Qunari went on as though Alistair hadn't interrupted, "Ffion is no fool. She knows that Morrigan and the Dwarf have the right mentalities to pass for possible slavers and Leliana can persuade anyone to believe what she wants them to believe. The morals of the first two work in her favor and the skills of the third are unmatched."

"And so my talents are moot?" Zevran inquired, a smile playing with the corners of his full mouth.

Shianni proved to be just as quick as any of them.

"You're an Elf," She said simply, her hazel eyes hard on the two Tevinter mages, "One thing about our people: we do not betray our own and these bastards know it. You would've spoiled the ruse."

Zevran winked at her, inclining his head in agreement.

"Very neatly disposed of, thank you," He told her and this time grinned fully.

"She's helping us," Shianni shrugged her slender shoulders and her hazel eyes tempered even more, "We will watch the mages as she asked and the minute there's trouble, we'll help her. She won't be left to fend for herself in this."

"No she will not," Zevran agreed with conviction.

Alistair gave him a quick glance, feeling the same rush of emotion. He wasn't about to lose Ffion to the Elf and was more determined than ever on that front, but for a split-second he saw the raw feeling in Zevran's face and knew that there was every possibility for this to turn into one hell of a fight.


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