Shades of Grey and Black

Tevinter Slavers and Wardens Do NOT Mix, But a New King for Ferelden? – Not a Bad Idea

"They cannot be making this worth your while," Leliana was saying to the sour-looking guard that stood at attention at the back door, "We are merely here to inspect the work and make our report. Our orders are to make sure that everything is flowing smoothly and there is no need to make everyone stiff and uncomfortable over just a few minutes of private investigation, no?"

The guard's eyes flickered as he thought over Leliana's words. They had conversed briefly about their strategy while Soris led them to the back of the hospital and the Orlesian simply told Ffion not to worry unless she really had to. Soris remained out of sight of the guard, knowing how recognizable he was as an Alienage local, and Morrigan and Oghren both held their tongues when Leliana stepped forward and began passing them off as delegates hired by the Tevinter lords to make sure that everything was going smoothly. The guard was doubtful at first, but the Orlesian knew more about Tevinter and her practices than anyone would have guessed and now they could see him wavering.

"Perhaps we could make it more rewarding," Ffion cut in. She had altered her belt before they approached the guard and she saw how his eyes went hungrily to the coin purse, weighing it in his head; and now she reached in with slender fingers, pulling out six sovereigns and stepping closer, "There will be another four if you let us do our work unmolested and without the scrutiny of your other fellows. We need to observe things here without their knowledge so that we can get a true feel for how serious this plague might be."

The guard held out his hand without seeming to realize it and blinked at the weight of the gleaming sovereigns. His near black eyes met Ffion's grey and then flickered to Leliana briefly before he stepped from the door.

"I can give you fifteen minutes," He said and his voice was rather breathless, "No more. You know, I have four mouths to feed at home and this job is barely covering those as it is. I could use all the help I can get."

Ffion watched him speculatively as Leliana unlocked the door and handed the key back. He wasn't trying to weasel his way into her money pouch; he was merely stating a fact and she felt a sudden rush of pity. This man clearly didn't know what he guarded any more than they did; he just wanted the money that it represented. She dug into her pouch again and pulled out another six sovereigns. Eamon had taken over the funding of their little band, or rather Teagan had, and they were not short of money.

"Then ease your mind for a time, ser," She said and dropped them with the rest, "And go and get something to eat."

He blinked at the money in his hand and then glanced up at her with a shocked, relieved smile.

"Maker bless you, serah," He replied, "You have no idea what this... what this will mean."

Ffion inclined her head and then was herded up the steps by Oghren as Leliana and Morrigan disappeared inside the building and the guard vanished around the corner. Tilly's claws scraped against the wooden floor as Ffion swung the door closed and the half dozen Tevinters in the room turned to face them. Four of them were armored guards while two were mages and one of these stepped forward, eyes narrowing as he studied the companions.

"What is this?" He asked, his voice cold, "Who do you think you are, barging in here like this?"

Leliana had just opened her mouth to try and pass off another lie, but one of the guards was much more observant than his fellows and he broke their cover.

"Wait, ser," He said quickly, staring at Ffion, "This one looks familiar, but it can't... it is! This is the Warden! You little bitch, you-"

Whatever he was going to accuse Ffion of went unknown. Morrigan almost lazily swung her staff around and blasted him with a bolt of lightning. It arced over to one of the other guards and would've gone around to the rest, but they threw themselves at the companions. Ffion and Oghren stood forward with Tilly, giving Leliana a chance to take out one of the mages and a third guard. Morrigan was busy with the fourth and Ffion disentangled herself from her fight to dive at the mage and dispatch him before he could cast. The fight was quick and once it was over, they prowled about the room. It was a large, rather square area that was completely open. There were a few cots scattered about, but these were empty and as Ffion made her way to the heavy, ornate desk in the front corner of the room, there was a cry for help. Opposite the desk a doorway opened onto a much smaller room and in this was a tall, barred cage that held four Elves.

"Oh, praise Andraste," One said and he put his arm around a woman as she started crying softly, "We weren't sure... we heard the fighting and we hardly dared to hope."

Ffion went to work on the lock, picking it with ease and pulling the gate open.

"What's going on here?" She asked as the Elves stepped from the cage and smiled grimly at their saviours.

"They were talking about shipments and payments," The Elf answered, his blue eyes scanning the room and eager to escape, "I never did get a complete answer, but they kept saying that the magisters were going to be so pleased."

"Wynne was right," Leliana said softly. She stood in the doorway, a money pouch in one hand and a missive in the other. Her blue eyes scanned the paper and then met Ffion's gaze, "They're slavers, Ffion."

The female Elf was still crying and she let out a little moan of terror. Her companion held her even closer as the other two pressed her shoulder reassuringly.

"Please, serah," The man said imploringly, "If you mean to put an end to this, keep an eye out for our girl. Her name is Lara and she's not yet thirteen. I hate to think what these bastards... Please."

"We're puttin' a stop to it," Oghren growled, "Don' yeh worry."

The Elf's face relaxed a little and he nodded to the back door.

"They took the others out that door and I think I heard them say something about the alley out back. I know they didn't parade them back through the Alienage, that's for sure."

"We'll figure it out," Ffion told him, "Wait here while we leave and make sure the coast is clear."

The companions went back to the door and Ffion opened it a half inch to peer out. Soris jumped a little and then motioned her to continue when he recognized her. The Warden pulled it all the way open and waved for the Elves to follow. Soris smiled at his fellows as they slipped away and then turned his attention to Ffion.

"The guard left for the square and I haven't seen him yet, but I don't think you'll have a whole lot of time to get out," He told her.

"I suppose 'tis this alley, Ffion," Morrigan offered, motioning to the little back street that led to a set of rundown buildings.

Soris followed the witch's movement and frowned.

"Those are old apartments," He said, "Though they haven't been used in a while. Beyond them there isn't anything except some old warehouses. Most of those are completely deserted, but... but they used to run all the way to the river and I'm sure there's still a few passages that end up there."

"Then we have our route," Ffion answered, her thoughts going in the same direction that Soris' did, "Would you signal the others, Soris? And then you and Shianni get to safety with as many of the Elves you can convince to go with you. If those mages return to the hospice and see... I don't want you guys taking the brunt of their anger."

Soris nodded and disappeared. A moment later, the rest of the companions were hurrying towards them and Alistair looked Ffion over carefully before being satisfied with her well-being. He seemed a little distracted, but shook his head at Ffion when she gave him a questioning glance. She left it alone and instead explained what happened as she turned her attention to the back street and they entered the decrepit apartment building. Immediately they fell into an uneasy silence. The building was deserted, but the atmosphere of the place felt heavy and oppressive. There was something eerie in the quiet and they moved gingerly through the dark hallway as they investigated. The door to the right opened on an empty room and there was evidence of someone leaving hastily. Covers were half off the cots, chairs had been pushed from the table abruptly; they could see the marks in the dust on the floor.

Ffion didn't want to linger and she pressed on to the next hallway. At the end of this, there was a quiet swishing sound and they could just make out the Elf's shape as he swept spilled coal off the floorboards. He almost dropped the broom when he spotted them and he would have flown the place had they not barred the way.

"W-who are you?" He demanded, trying to make his voice strong, "What are you doing here? What do you want?"

"We might ask you the same thing," Wynne replied dryly.

Zevran flipped the Elf a sovereign, getting his attention.

"We only want answers," He said smoothly, "What is going on here?"

"I-I don't know," The Elf replied.

"An' yeh 'spect us to believe it?" Oghren cut in.

"I mean it, I don't know," The Elf's voice was surer, "They just asked me to come in and clean up when I could."

"And you did not think this odd?" Morrigan's tone was more than a little disbelieving, "I was under the impression the Elves do not go against their own and-"

"The - I can only say that they take the groups out through the other door," He was looking between them all and his eyes kept straying to Sten's hulking form, "They always lead them out, I don't ever see them come back through."

Alistair arched his brows.

"Most of us would find that a little suspicious."

"He's telling the truth," Wynne cut in, "There's nothing else that you remember? Even the smallest detail would help."

The Elf responded to Wynne's gentle voice more readily than the others' demands and he thought for a moment before shaking his head.

"Nothing, I'm sorry, but there's nothing."

Ffion took the lead again and they continued through the odd, disheartening building towards the back door. They passed two more rooms, the second of which had a few spots of blood spattering the floor and Alistair stooped to pick up an object that was lying in the doorway. Ffion moved closer to get a better look and felt her heart drop. It was a small handmade doll that had clearly been well-loved. Ffion had seen a number of the same things from the Elves that her family employed in Highever and the nostalgia was painful. She thought of the poor Elves trapped in the hospice and the man's plea: ... She's not yet thirteen... Her eyes met Alistair's.

"Let's go and teach these bastards a lesson," She said swiftly, feeling more like her old self now than she had in what seemed like a long time.

Her companions were with her and she threw open the door to the outside without ceremony. The clouds had rolled in with a vengeance now and a fine mist settled over the city, but the guards watching the courtyard between the apartments and warehouses were alert and the one in charge eyed them coolly.

"'Oo the 'ell are yeh?" He demanded and the archers behind him were prepping themselves without a signal, "Yeh ain' any o'the Tevinters."

"Let's just say we're your atonement," Alistair offered and Leliana struck first.

The fight was intense and over before it started. Morrigan utilized that incredible blast of power that was so devastating to those hit by it and Leliana's bow hardly, if ever, missed its targets. Oghren took down the last warrior and Zevran lifted the keys from the lead guard and opened the way forward. The warehouse was dim and while they waited for their eyes to adjust, a new voice spoke.

"A new shipment already?" It was a female Elf, her dark hair pulled back at the sides and clever, pale brown eyes going over the party. There was a bow and quiver full of arrows hanging at her back and her voice held traces of a foreign accent. She came close and looked at them more fully and then frowned, "Or perhaps not. What is this?"

Ffion drew herself up, feeling her back protest and allowing her anger to be stronger than her pain. Loghain couldn't keep getting away with this and she was determined to put a stop to it. And Alistair was with her, every inch of the way. He tossed the rough little doll to the Elf and spoke before Ffion could.

"We're shutting you down," He said coldly, "These are people, not property. This is wrong and Ferelden will not condone it any longer."

The Elf looked at the doll and then dropped it disdainfully in a move that encompassed her view on slavery. She waved one hand to the seven guards with her and laughed coldly.

"Ferelden has been funding our trade for months," She answered and reached for her bow, "You are just the latest casualties in the cause of idealism. This is the reality that everyone will be living."

"Not quite," Leliana put in and a guard was dropped by one of her silver darts.

The Elf stood back and fired from a distance as her warriors moved in. Wynne kept busy protecting them from the ranged attack and Sten hurled his body forward, taking an arrow to the shoulder and decapitating the Elf. Alistair, Zevran, and Oghren made quick work of the rest of the warriors and Wynne saw to the Qunari's shoulder. It wasn't too serious, but the Elf had dipped the heads in poison and there was a tense moment before Wynne found the right potion to counter it. Sten sighed in relief after he downed the potion and met Ffion's gaze as she frowned at him.

"We can-"

"I am fine, kadan," He interrupted and led the way to the next door, "The wound is no longer burning and I cannot feel the poison coursing through me anymore."

"Tha' may mean yer gonna drop any secon'," Oghren put in helpfully as they entered another long corridor so narrow that they were forced to shift to pairs.

"Thanks, Oghren, that really sets my mind at ease," Ffion said dryly as she fell in beside him and behind Sten and Alistair.

"Anythin' ta help, boss," He grinned.

"Don't fret, dove," Zevran's voice was easy and light and he let Tilly move closer to her lady as they approached another door, "Our Wynne hasn't failed us yet and I don't believe we will see the day where she would."

Wynne chuckled as Alistair opened the door to reveal a barrack-like room with a few sets of bunks. Her pale blue eyes were lively despite the wariness that the empty room brought about.

"It is nice to know there is no added pressure," She said as wryly as Ffion and then the next door was open and the sight of this last room brought all light-hearted conversation and teasing to a halt.

They stood on a raised portion of the room, overlooking the larger area below. Two more cages were situated at the far end of the room, both packed with Elves, and on either side of where the companions stood two short staircases led down towards the cages.

"Ah, so here they are," The new voice drew their attention to the mage that stood in the middle of the floor below and the company of men that he had with him. His accent was thicker than the Elf's and rather interesting, "I see that one is even the young would-be king that everyone has made such a fuss about. So the sweet girl with him must be the Warden. I was thinking that you would be taller."

"And I do hate to disappoint," Ffion's back was beginning to hurt again and it merely brought out her old irreverence. The distraction of being with her companions and going out on a new adventure had been fading for some time now and she wanted to be done with all of this; she was so tired of being deceived and lied to.

"Now, now, dear Warden," The mage scolded with a cold charm that sent shivers down Ffion's spine, "We both know that sarcasm is beyond us, right? Of course we do. I have a more interesting proposition for you... a deal if you prefer."

Ffion's hands curled into fists and she physically bit her tongue to keep from blurting the words on her lips. Her gaze felt cold even to her as she stared at the mage.

"I don't, but go ahead."

The brows arched up over the severe brown eyes and the mage's bald head gleamed in the flickering torchlight as he paced a little closer to the ledge that the companions were perched on.

"You are here for proof that Loghain is involved in this lucrative trade," He began and ignored the way that Wynne and Alistair bristled at his wording, "I can give you this... for a price. A hundred sovereigns and all the letters and documentation that have come to me through the regent are yours. And I am left out of it. I will take my current shipment and disappear and you have my word that Ferelden will be free of me and my men."

Ffion's brows had inched up with every word that he said and they were in danger of disappearing into her hair. She glanced around at her companions and saw that they were all nearly as surprised as she was. Alistair looked at the mage in disgust.

"We aren't actually considering this, are we? It feels... dirty."

"An' not in a good way," Oghren agreed and his voice sounded uncomfortable.

"Why play a part in this when we can get the letters on our own terms?" Leliana demanded and she altered the gauntlet that hid those dangerous silver darts.

Ffion agreed with all of them and Wynne was shielding them with her magic as she answered the mage.

"New deal, because I agree with Leliana: we kill you and take everything for free."

The guards were inching toward the stairs and the mage reached for his staff with a disappointed sigh.

"And more sarcasm," He observed as a rather inhuman aura surrounded him, "Very well, we do this the hard way then."

Wynne's shield of magic held and Sten and Alistair skipped the stairs as they vaulted over the railing and to the floor below. Morrigan lashed out with her magic, grabbing three of the warriors and lifting them part-way into the air before slamming them back to the ground where they didn't move. Leliana covered Sten and Alistair as they tried to get to the mage and Zevran and Ffion both enveloped the warriors that were charging the steps in clouds of disorienting smoke. They stood back as Oghren barreled into the smoke, his axe blade slicing the air. This actually worked fairly well and those that weren't killed immediately didn't stand a chance against Ffion and Zevran as they followed in the Dwarf's wake with Tilly barking furiously behind them. Wynne and Morrigan stayed above, taking down more of the remaining warriors while Sten managed to break through the mage's defenses. The guards were now whittled down to eight and though they fought furiously, they were no match for the familiarity that months of fighting together had brought about in Ffion's party.

The Warden ducked around behind a warrior when he charged at her, dealing a viscous backstab and knocking him into Oghren's path. She felt one of Leliana's arrows go whizzing by her ear and the second guard hurtling towards her was dropped. She whirled to face the room and was just in time to see the blade flash as the mage cut his own hand and drew the power of the blood to him. A moment later, Sten took a crimson bolt to the chest and it knocked him backwards, sending him to his knees and freezing him for a moment. Alistair was left on his own and he swung his sword at the distracted mage who reacted just as quickly. He released his hold on the Qunari, disappeared in a blinding flash, and then was in front of Ffion. She reacted too late and her swords clattered to the floor as the mage lashed out with his staff and then had her about the throat with his bloody hand. Her back hit the wall behind them as the mage squeezed hard and she choked, swinging her hands at his face, trying to connect with anything that would help her. The mage was unfazed; he merely tightened his hold and the Warden felt the power when he shielded them from her frantic companions. She could hear the blood rushing through her ears as she fought for the breath that was being deprived her and her fingers fumbled at his grip while black spots started dancing in her eyes. That familiar dark oblivion swirled about her and her hand fell from his and the next thing she saw was a flash of impossibly long, hairy black legs. Too many legs. The hold on her throat loosened and then disappeared and the Warden's legs gave out. She fell to the floor in a heap, gasping for breath and feeling pinpricks with each blessed lungful of air. Tilly was pressing close, her whining still frantic and her wet nose cold. Ffion felt Wynne's healing magic spreading through her with its comforting warmth, but it didn't have its usual potency and it took a minute before she could sit up.

Alistair helped with that. He dropped to his knees beside her, his still bloody sword clattering down beside hers and his touch tender when he reached for her. He slid one arm around her shoulders, bending close so that he could help her up. She clung to him, wincing at the pain in her throat. It felt like it was five times too big and it hurt too much to pull away from Tilly when the Mabari pressed close to lick her cheek.

"You okay?" Alistair was still out of breath from the fight and that overwhelming fear that had taken hold when the mage grabbed Ffion was slowly ebbing, "I'm sorry, I should have had him. It just- it happened so fast and I-"

She held up one hand to stop him and glanced up at the others as they came close. Wynne was leaning on her staff, her face drawn and Morrigan was back in her original form. Oghren purposefully kicked and then stepped on the mage's body when he approached with Leliana; and Zevran looked so concerned that the Warden forced a reassuring smile in spite of the pain. The peaked look on Sten's face concerned her, but the Qunari was standing straight and proud and he shook his head at her.

"I'm... I'm fine," She told them hoarsely and winced at the burning pain, "Let's finish this."

She got to her feet with Alistair's help and Wynne meant to cast again, but Ffion waved her off. The healing took too much from the enchanter and that wasn't what she needed now. The Warden stood under her own power and went to the first cage, picking the lock easily and hearing Zevran work at the other. The Elves stepped from the cages with expressions of deepest gratitude and one stepped forward, giving Ffion a little bow.

"You have our undying gratitude, Warden," He said and straightened. His near white hair hung just above his shoulders and his grey eyes held an ancient intelligence. They warmed as they locked with Ffion's and he added, "The Alienage is in your debt and if the need should arise, the Wardens will have our support. The Maker guide and bless you."

"Wait," She implored, holding up a hand, "Is Lara here?"

The Elder gave her a surprised look and then reached back with one hand to tug a young Elf forward. The blonde hair was almost white and her enormous blue eyes looked up at the Warden with something like reverence.

"Your mother and father are safe, child," Ffion told her and kept her voice to a near whisper. It hurt too much to try anything more, "They escaped, too."

The girl began crying with happiness and she stepped closer, giving Ffion a brief hug and then taking the Elder's hand and leading the way from the room. The Warden saw with an uneasy twinge that Lara had pulled back with a small smear of blood in that blonde hair and she glanced down at herself. The blood wasn't hers and as Leliana crouched to rifle through the mage's belongings, Wynne moved to Ffion's elbow.

"He got it everywhere, didn't he?" The Warden asked wryly.

The enchanter whisked the blood away with a simple wave of her staff and then tried the healing once more. Ffion felt a little burst of strength and then it dispersed. Wynne frowned and glanced at her staff in confusion.

"There seems to have been something in his magic, Ffion," She said, "I can't think why else my spell won't work."

"Then save your strength," The Warden answered with a dismissive wave and wished her voice hadn't failed right then; the enchanter could look so foreboding when she wished, "I'm not in danger of dying and you need to worry about yourself every now and then."

"We have what we need, Ffion," Leliana cut in and smiled rather grimly, "Let us put this matter completely to rest."

They made their way back to the Alienage's square without trouble and the mist had become a full downpour. The crowds in front of the hospice had disappeared and the mages weren't in sight either. Oghren fell in beside Leliana as the Orlesian led the way out of the tall gates and back through the side streets towards the Arl's place. Zevran was following behind Alistair and Ffion who walked together and he was the only one to overhear the ex-Templar's words to his fellow Warden. Wynne had succeeded in getting Sten to converse with her and Morrigan listened to them with a rather bemused expression. Alistair knew that Zevran would eavesdrop, but there was nothing he could do about it and he needed Ffion's help in this.

"Ffion, I need to ask you something," He began hesitantly and saw how her eyes flickered with alarm. His breath caught for a moment as he realized that their conversation just that morning was still fresh in her mind and the rain did amazing things to her appearance: her cheeks were flushed, her eyes over-bright, and the curls that escaped the hood of the heavy cloak she had tossed around her shoulders were even more intense than usual... But then he came back to reality and felt Zevran's pointed gaze on the back of his head, "Do you ever think about the Fade and... and everything that happened there?"

She let out a breath and winced. In spite of her growing feelings for Alistair, she couldn't help the relief that swept through her at such a simple question from him. With the look in his eyes, she had thought that he was going to finish what had been started that morning, here, with everyone around.

"I try not to," She answered and her voice was still soft.

He smiled a little and gave her a nod.

"I can understand that," He agreed and then added more carefully, "Well, the reason I ask is because I... I thought you should know that Goldanna is not just a... just a wish or dream. She's real and I think I know where I might find her."

Ffion's expression was one of pleased surprise and her grey eyes fixed on his.

"That's wonderful, Alistair," She said and she gave him his smile, "Where is she? Here in Ferelden, I guess."

"Actually, here in Denerim, in the marketplace," He corrected and knew that they were approaching the market in their trek back to Eamon, "She's a laundress. I knew that she was around here somewhere, and when you and the others went into the hospice I overheard a couple of the Elves talking about a Goldanna that has been working with some of the young ladies from the Alienage, teaching them the skills they need to support themselves," He took a deep breath and got to his main point, "I'd like to meet her, but I don't think I can talk to her alone. Would you come with me? I want to meet her before... Never mind, I just want to meet her before everything ends."

The Warden's smile was gentle; the dimple just the barest shadow in her tired face and Alistair wished that he was finishing that confession. His honey eyes lit and Ffion spoke before he could.

"Of course, I'll come with you," She glanced around them and saw that they were skipping the main square of the marketplace now, using a lesser traveled alley and she stopped walking. Leliana knew without them making a sound and she frowned over her shoulder at them, "You all can report back to Eamon, let him know how things went and give him the mage's papers. Alistair and I have something we need to do."

Wynne's frown was the foreboding one and a crease appeared between Sten's brows. Zevran moved closer, his hand going to the crook of her arm.

"Let me come with you, pet," He said and then added when Alistair sent him a look, "Just to keep watch, in case someone decides to be silly, yes?"

"Whatever is decided let it be quick, yes? This rain, 'tis most unpleasant," Morrigan tugged her cloak closer and burrowed her raven head into the furred hood.

"There's no argument," Ffion answered, "Go on, Alistair and I will be there in a minute. Tell Eamon there's nothing to worry about. And I suppose you'll come along no matter what, Zev, so I won't stop you."

Alistair and Ffion turned into the main square with Tilly and Zevran trailed them with a faux hurt expression.

"Not if you command it, my dear one," He purred, "I would not dream of crossing you."

"Flatterer," She muttered to him in an aside, her voice still doing its trick of strengthening and fading. Her throat was tender and it felt incredibly swollen, but she glanced up at Alistair adding briskly, "Where is Goldanna, Alistair? Let's see what your sister is like."

Alistair looked lost for a moment and they wandered further into the square to huddle under a canvas, protected from the rain. There was a young boy working a potion stand nearby and the ex-Templar leaned over the table to speak with him.

"I'm looking for the laundress Goldanna," He said, "Could you tell me which is her shop?"

The boy waved to a row of houses at the opposite end of the square and told Alistair that she lived and worked in the last apartment. The ex-Templar tossed him a few coins for his trouble and they crossed the square, tugging their cloaks against the rain. Zevran ducked around the building, finding shelter in a corner that was perfect for keeping a sharp look-out and Alistair paused with one hand on the door latch. His honey eyes studied the grain of the wood and he spoke to Ffion without looking at her.

"I don't think I can do this, Ffion," He said softly, "What if... what if it isn't her and I'm making a complete fool of myself?"

"And what if it is and you miss an opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with a wonderful woman?" She returned and had to violently bury that creature that woke within her heart when the ex-Templar touched her that morning. His eyes were so tender they melted her from the inside-out and she couldn't concentrate when he looked at her like that. Brushing her fingers against his armored forearm, she added, "Don't turn back now."

He smiled down at her and wanted to touch her cheek, but instead he pulled open the door and stepped inside. The interior was clean and cramped with a row of tubs lining one wall and racks for drying across from them. There was shuffling from the back and a middle-aged woman appeared smiling amiably. She looked almost exactly like the Goldanna from the Fade, save being a little thinner, and Ffion wondered whether Alistair had seen her before or the powers that controlled the Fade worked much more thoroughly than any of them believed.

"Hey there," Goldanna greeted warmly, "Have yeh washin' then?"

"Um, no," Alistair spoke abruptly, his nerves getting the better of him, "No, we're here about something else."

Goldanna's brown eyes narrowed a little.

"Is it 'bout the boys again? Alrigh' what'd they do now? I'll 'ave their 'ides if they're gettin' after the Alienage girls again."

"No, serah, it's nothing to do with your boys. I just- I..." Alistair's voice trailed away at Goldanna's confused frown and he glanced down at Ffion, strengthening again at her encouraging smile, "Is your mother Muirne Havveshire?"

Goldanna's frown deepened and her expression became suspicious. She folded her arms over her chest and glanced between the two before focusing on Alistair again.

"Aye, that's her name, but wha' of it? She's been dead fer nearly twenty-five 'ears now."

"She died shortly after giving birth to a son, right?" Alistair kept his tone level and polite, trying to tread carefully.

"How d'yeh know that?" Goldanna demanded, her voice fierce and a little frightened now.

Ffion thought fleetingly that he might be going about this the wrong way, but didn't have the chance to cut in.

"Well, because, and this might come as a shock, but I'm that boy."

Goldanna's lips parted and she eyed the ex-Templar, her face stormy with emotion. Her brown eyes went from suspicious and unsure to incensed in the matter of seconds and she took a half-step forward, her hands curling into fists.

"So 'ere yeh are," She replied and her voice was very cold; there was nothing of the initial warmth and pleasantness, "Wha' in the Maker's name makes yeh think I wan' anythin' to do with yeh?"

Alistair's cheeks began burning and his face fell and Ffion bristled at the hopelessly crushed look that he gave Goldanna.

"He thought maybe a sister would be as happy to find her brother as he was to find her," She snapped and her voice was hoarse again.

"Wha's this? Word goes ou' yer the son of a king an' the tarts already linin' up?"

"Now wait a damn minute!" Alistair exclaimed, feeling the sting of the words probably more than Ffion did.

Goldanna ignored him and gave vent to feelings that had clearly been bottled for far too long.

"Yer beast of a father forced himself on my mother, he did. An' yer birth killed her; an' where did tha' leave me? With two sovereigns an' a swift boot to th' arse when I was kicked out o' the palace," Her bitterness was suddenly understandable and some of the anger left Alistair's face as he felt for his half-sister's plight, "Those sovereigns didn' last long and then wha' was I to do? I've go' five mouths to feed an' here yeh come, flauntin' all yer power an' prestige in my face in the name of family. Well, yeh can keep it to yerself an' get the hell outta my house."

Ffion's heart ached for Alistair and she wasn't willing to sit back silently while he was attacked so cruelly.

"Look, all he wanted was-"

"It's no use, Ffion," Alistair interrupted in a rather hollow voice, "It's clear all she wants is money so, here, and good riddance."

He dropped his money bag on one of the tables and then turned and shoved the door open without looking at Goldanna. Ffion sent the woman one last scathing glare and then trailed after the ex-Templar with Tilly on her heels. Alistair stood just inside the awning that stretched over the doors of the shops and stared glumly into the downpour. Silently blessing Zevran for his surprising show of tact, Ffion moved to Alistair's elbow and touched his arm gently.

"I know it's inadequate, but I'm so sorry, Alistair," She could hear the strength slowly coming back to her voice in spite of the pinpricks that stabbed in and out of her throat, "This will be her loss. Please, don't start believing it's any shortcoming on your part. This is just one of those times where reality comes through crystal clear: people will look after their own well-being and damn anyone who steps on their toes. I guess it's a lesson everyone learns at some point."

The ex-Templar thought about that for a moment and knew she was right. He had deceived himself into thinking that Goldanna would have no hard feelings about the circumstances of his birth and just be happy to meet him. And he was proved very wrong, but it wasn't anger that coursed through him, it was sadness. He had been taken care of from the time he was a baby, loved and looked after, and here his half-sister had been kicked out of the only home she knew, as an orphan. How could there be anything but hard feelings? Ffion's fingers pressed between his armor, squeezing his elbow, bringing him back to reality, and he smiled down at her. His heart thrilled at the soft grey eyes, the unruly curls that refused to stay tucked away, and the upturned corners of her full mouth. He also saw the beginnings of what would be ugly bruising around her slender neck and he reached with one hand before he could help it. Brushing her cheek tenderly and ecstatic when she didn't pull away, he answered her.

"I know, but it's a damn hard lesson," His voice was husky as he pressed his palm to her cheek, "And thank you, Ffion, you have no idea what your presence here means. I couldn't have done this without you."

"Sister in the taint," She replied and failed miserably in bringing back their old irrelevancy.

"And so much more."

There were promises in his voice that shouldn't be made and Ffion was both relieved and disappointed when Zevran chose that moment to interrupt them.

"So, successful?" He asked, his voice bright as he stepped under the canvas with them, "Or, no, I see."

"Good or bad, I got my answer," Alistair answered bluntly as he dropped his hand from Ffion's cheek.

"And now we return to our own family, yes?" The Elf observed and effortlessly managed what Ffion could not.

The irrelevance was back. But this only lasted as long as it took for them to return to Eamon's estate. There was an odd empty aura that they could feel even in the courtyard and when the front doors opened, Wynne stopped pacing abruptly and rushed to them.

"Praise Andraste, finally!" She exclaimed and shoved a potion into Ffion's hand before turning her attention to Alistair, "Eamon tried to hold things off and wait for you but wasn't given much choice. He, Teagan, and the rest have already gone and I told them that I would fill you in on our way."

"Care to do the filling in now, my dear?" Zevran spoke calmly, knowing that this was the best method to keep Wynne calm as well.

"Loghain called for the nobles to convene and conveniently 'forgot' Eamon," The enchanter threw her cloak around her shoulders and herded them out the door, "Clearly he's trying to set Eamon off-balance. Which means he knows he is in dire straits as far as the vote is concerned. But we must hurry."

And they did. They reached the great hall in the matter of a few rain soaked minutes and entered the building unchecked. It wasn't until they gathered in the entry and shed their sopping cloaks that they met any opposition.

"Warden; Alistair," A firm, familiar voice said and Cauthrien stepped from the shadows, "There is little surprise that things have come this far and if you were remotely worthy of claiming Maric's title, you would already be in the Landsmeet, wouldn't you? And you, Warden, you have never paused to consider why my lord Loghain is a hero to Ferelden. I will not step aside and allow you to destroy the sanctity of the Landsmeet with your foolish notions."

That motion for quiet was now second nature to Ffion and she did it so reflexively her companions hardly needed to see it. Her grey eyes were on Cauthrien and she was quick to see that even this battle-hardened, loyal-to-the-end warrior was at her wits' end and clinging to a barely held belief.

"Serah Cauthrien, you can't stand here and tell me that this is the same man that saved Ferelden all those years ago," She said gently, "The changes in his nature must be painful, but can't be ignored. Do you really not see it?"

Cauthrien inhaled quickly and her gaze was rather frantic as it searched Ffion's face. It only took a moment for her to deflate and lose what little righteous anger had fueled her. She frowned, her face screwing up with pain as she realized what she was doing.

"I have had... so many doubts lately," She answered slowly, "Loghain is still a great man, but he has allowed his hatred of Orlais... anything possibly resembling a threat to himself or his nation to twist his mind and consume him. You cannot ask me to betray him. I owe him everything and I can't step aside, Warden, I can't... please..."

"Then let us do the right thing, serah," Ffion softened her voice and didn't drop her gaze from the warrior's, "Let us stop him before anymore damage can be done."

The woman's face twisted even more and then she gave a slow nod.

"I never... Duty can taste so bitter. This wasn't supposed to... Very well, Warden, stop him before he destroys... betrays everything he once loved. But remember this one thing: without Loghain there would be no Ferelden to defend."

She stood aside and the companions moved forward. Ffion only hesitated a moment before taking a breath, giving Alistair a grim smile, and throwing the double doors open. The room was packed with the nobles that had descended on Denerim and the head high balcony held the Arls and Banns. Ffion and her companions pushed their way through the press and saw the other members of their party standing with Eamon ahead of them. Leliana spotted them first and sent a winning smile their way but everyone else's attention was on Loghain who was addressing those gathered. They had caught him in the middle of his speech.

"...a puppet on the throne and only fools cannot see this. The question we must ask is this: Who will be pulling the strings?"

Those nobles standing between Ffion and Loghain suddenly pulled back as they realized she was pushing by them and she had a clear view of the general the same moment that he had one of her. His grey-blue eyes sparked with intense animosity but he kept the rather irreverent tone as he added,

"Ah! And here is the puppeteer herself!"

Ffion's brows went up and she found herself once more in eternal gratitude to Wynne as her throat felt much better and the niggling pain in her back disappeared. Her hair was dripping onto her armor and she knew they looked more or less like drowned rats, but she stood tall and proud and Loghain was the one that looked desperate as he kept pounding at her.

"Tell the nobles, Warden, if you would, just how the Orlesians will be taking over their lands once more. Are they going to send another battalion or will they merely rule over us through your would-be prince?"

Loghain stood just before the raised dais where the throne was perched and the two sets of double doors on either side of him hung open. Ffion continued until she stood level with where Eamon was and wondered briefly about Anora when she missed the queen's blonde head in the mix to her right. But the general's soldiers were barring her from coming any closer to Loghain and she stopped again, eyeing him with a disdain that made Sten and Morrigan both rather proud. The Warden was growing up.

"Orlesians, General?" She asked and her voice held the perfect note of indulgence, "Why don't we discuss the real threat here and decide how we're going to defeat the Blight? The Darkspawn are here, now, and the nobles are more concerned with their destruction than this imaginary threat you would have them act upon. The larger issue here is the Blight, don't dodge around it."

A new voice spoke up from the balcony and Ffion glanced at the pretty, hard-looking woman whose tone was very dry.

"There are enough refugees in our Bannorn now to attest to this."

Another noble spoke, this time a sandy haired man that was very familiar though Ffion couldn't place him at the moment.

"Alfstanna is right," He said, "The south has fallen, Loghain, this fear of Orlais is ridiculous. Are you really going to let our whole country be destroyed while you chase the wrong foes?"

Loghain's eyes flashed and his expression told them that he knew how thin the ice was that he walked, but he didn't let that slow his fight against Ffion.

"The Blight is a concern, Wulff, but my question is: Do we really need the Wardens to defeat it? We had a full contingency of them at Ostagar and they had asked to bring four legions of chevaliers. If we had allowed the chevaliers in, does anyone really think that they would have returned peacefully from whence they came? And besides, we all know how well that battle turned out."

There was a collective murmuring from the nobles gathered and Ffion couldn't let that blow go unanswered. She spared a quick glance up at her companions and was reassured by Morrigan's nod. She fixed her eyes on Loghain.

"You concern yourself with chevaliers, general, when you yourself have been consorting with the Tevinters and selling your own people to fund your war. My, my, what a convenient lapse of morality."

The outburst of murmuring was slightly louder this time and Loghain's glare was more intense than ever. Ffion's voice, still rather hoarse, didn't need much to carry to the others and they caught her meaning with ease.

"What's this?" A third noble demanded and his blue eyes fixed on Loghain, "Explain yourself, general."

Loghain glared at Ffion for a moment longer and then transferred to the noble. He gave the impression that he was doing some very quick thinking.

"The Alienage is lost to us," He said slowly, "The Elves have not been able to recover from the riots and there is rot among them. There is no chance to hold the place if the Blight extends this far," His eyes went back to the Warden and his armor gleamed in the light as he shrugged his shoulders, "Despite what you might think, Warden, I haven't strayed from my duty. Whatever I feel for the Elves, I did what was best for Ferelden."

"'Best for Ferelden?'" She repeated and her animosity matched his. She wasn't about to go into Howe's sins, but she had other ammunition, "Kind of like sending an apostate to poison Arl Eamon when we all know that he's integral to Ferelden succeeding in this battle against the Blight?"

For once in her life, Ffion was genuinely happy that she had trouble keeping out of things that were not her business. Loghain was nearly apoplectic for a moment and then he had himself under control.

"I assure you, Warden," He spat her title and clearly only used it because he wasn't willing to stoop lower than she, and she hadn't dropped her politeness yet, "If I wished to dispatch someone I would send my own soldiers to do so."

"Is that so, Loghain?" Alfstanna's voice was as cold as the general's and he blanched a little when she spoke, "My brother tells a very different story. It seems that he was escorting a blood mage that was plucked from the Chantry's justice, at the regent's command. A blood mage that matches the description of the mage Eamon currently has in custody in Redcliffe due to a recent poisoning. Is this mere coincidence?"

"If there is truth to this claim, Teyrn Loghain, don't think that the Chantry will turn a blind eye," An elderly woman garbed in Chantry robes warned, "The Maker does not take lightly to the tampering of his Templars' work either."

Loghain came close to wincing at this and then he straightened his shoulders.

"Whatever my sins, I will answer for them later," He said in a thoughtful voice, "I have only a few questions for the Warden and the first concerns the Teyrn Howe. Does the assembly know that you sneaked into his home and cut him down in cold blood? Or was that glossed over as part of your miraculous escape from Fort Drakon?"

Zevran wished with all his might it was up to him to keep that chasm from looming and even as Ffion's face grew pale, Eamon was cutting in.

"Howe was no saint, Loghain, and most of those gathered know this," His voice echoed in the hall, cold and severe, "Whatever befell Howe was his doing."

"That's abundantly clear," A new voice cried, "My boy nearly had his legs broken and he is still recovering now."

"And this is supposed to be believable from the girl-"

"Do you really think anything you say will negate the fact that you let Howe imprison and threaten your daughter?"

Alistair interrupted Loghain without realizing its importance and Ffion let out the breath she had unwittingly inhaled and held. She would have laughed at this strange twist in her affairs if the repercussions here were not so serious. Here was Alistair, wanting her in more ways than one, wanting to know everything about her, interrupting the man that nearly blew her cover and never being the wiser; never knowing how close he had just come to finding out about this girl he was falling for. And then Loghain jumped at the new track Alistair opened for him and Ffion came crashing back to reality.

"And where is my daughter?" He demanded, his blue-grey eyes even fiercer, "The rumors claim that she has taken refuge with Eamon and the Warden, but how do we know this to be the truth? I don't see Anora here. Are we to simply assume that she wasn't killed with Teyrn Howe? What-"

"I believe I can answer that."

Ffion relaxed a little and stopped biting her tongue. If Anora hadn't interrupted Loghain, she would have screamed. She couldn't take hearing her father's title preceding that bastard's name and would snap if it happened again. The attention of the room transferred to Anora as she entered behind her father. She walked stately, proudly, like a queen, and she gave the impression that she had been waiting to make the most dramatic entry.

"Good lords and ladies, hear me," She continued and her voice carried through the hall, "My father is no longer the man of old. He is no longer the Hero of River Dane. It pains me to say these things, but my father has allowed his unfounded fear of Orlais consume him and cloud his mind. He... is no longer fit to rule."

While most every eye was on Anora, Ffion didn't look away from Loghain. He was listening to his daughter's words, growing paler with each syllable and the Warden was the only one to see this. His face lined more deeply and he suddenly looked quite old. Ffion felt a little burst of pity at the lost look that flashed in his eyes before he turned to face Anora. He looked exactly how she felt after that night in Highever and she shook herself mentally as Anora went on.

"This man before you pulled his troops from Ostagar when Cailan needed them," Anora's voice was still strong even with her father now facing her, "And he left our king... my husband, to those monsters. This was not an action made by the man you and I remember. This man seized the king's throne before the ashes of Ostagar were cold and then locked me away so that I could not reveal his treachery. I myself would have been... betrayed and... and killed if not for the Warden's interference."

Anora's voice faltered and though she met Loghain's gaze squarely, she looked very young for a moment. Alistair moved a little ahead of Ffion and his honey eyes were lit with that new fire. He wasn't going to let his fellow Warden take any more heat for him and he was the next to speak.

"The queen is right," He said in a strong voice, "Loghain can no longer retain the regency."

Loghain stared hard at Anora, seeming to ignore Alistair's words, and then he let out a pained breath.

"So they have even turned you against me, daughter. I had hoped to keep you from this and..." His voice was heavy and Anora paled but didn't look away from him. Her direct gaze bolstered him and he turned back to the nobles abruptly, still fighting but realizing now just how quickly the walls were closing in on him, "Lords and ladies, our lands have been threatened before and we Fereldens have always held firm against our enemies. This will not become the exception to that rule! We must not be divided now! Stand with me and we shall defeat the Blight itself!"

Ffion's lips parted to snap back, but Alistair motioned with one hand and the Warden was surprised to find that this was Loghain's way of forcing the vote. She glanced around the room quickly, seeing how many pairs of eyes studied her as though measuring her against the general; and she straightened her shoulders, pulling her nobility around her and recognizing this moment as one to exploit her mother's training to its fullest. There were quiet murmurings for a moment and then one of the lords spoke.

"Well, someone has to start the chaos," He said in a dry voice and then more loudly, "The Wardens! I support the Wardens!"

It was the son of the true Arl of Denerim that spoke and his blue eyes glittered maliciously when they landed on Loghain. After his words, it seemed a free-for-all.

"Waking Sea stands with the Wardens!" Alfstanna called.

"I am with Loghain! We have no hope of succeeding otherwise," The noble's voice shook and Alistair wondered, perhaps unkindly, how badly Loghain and Howe had bullied him.

"Dragon's Peak is for the Wardens!"

"South Reach supports the Wardens!"

"The Western Hills throw their lot in with the Wardens! Maker preserve us all," Wulff's harsh voice called the final death knoll for Loghain's victory and his heartfelt petition brought a grim silence.

Ffion felt warm relief flood her and she let out a quiet sigh as Alistair nodded to Eamon and straightened his shoulders. He took another step towards the general, his head held high, and a little rush of pride went through Ffion. He had become Maric's heir.

"The Landsmeet has spoken," The ex-Templar said firmly, "Stand down peacefully, general."

Loghain's eyes flickered briefly at Alistair's polite, correct use of his title. His face appeared to age even more, but he wasn't finished yet. He grabbed hold of his anger and went on the defensive.

"Traitors!" He snarled and Ffion was worried that he would completely ignore the outcome of the vote and the fact that her companions would spring into action, and attack Alistair then and there, "How many of you stood with me when the Orlesians invaded our lands, burned our homes; raped our wives, killed our children?!" He whirled in a bright flash of gleaming armor and glared up at Eamon, "You fought with us, Eamon, you know what it all meant to us. Or you used to before you got too content and complacent, and now you have no idea of the risks you take making this choice," When Eamon refused to rise to the bait, Loghain faced the Wardens again, "None of you deserve to make this decision! None of you have bled and sacrificed for this country in the way that I have! You don't get to sit judgement on me!"

A tense silence fell over the great hall again and Alistair never dropped his gaze from the general's. Loghain's breathing was harsh, his face tinted red with fury, and he looked for all the world like a child who had just had his favorite toy taken away; not like one of Ferelden's greatest leaders. The ex-Templar felt pity course through him, but he stilled it before it could have an effect on the decision he had just made. And the fear that followed almost did that for him. He squared his shoulders and lifted his head again and tried to ignore the heat from Ffion's sudden look.

"If you are refusing to acknowledge the Landsmeet's vote, then pull your men back and let's settle this issue once and for all," His voice came out as sure and strong as Loghain's had been rather petulant and he refused to look away as murmurings and exclamations broke out all around him.

Ffion's grey eyes went wide and she gaped at Alistair. She wondered if those words really meant what they implied and decided they had to when Loghain's eyes lit with a desperate sort of hope. She turned to the ex-Templar, not sure what she was going to say and not able to let that go without an argument.

"Please," Was all she could manage.

Zevran stepped up to press her arm and Loghain's voice drowned out her impassioned plea. Alistair's face hardened and it took everything within him to keep from looking down at her. There was so much in that simple little word and-

"Very well," Loghain's harsh tones cut through his thoughts, "We shall test the mettle of our would-be king. State the terms of the duel."

Ffion couldn't speak, her heart had taken up residence in her throat, and she could only listen while Alfstanna's clear voice rang out.

"The duel shall be fought according to tradition - a test of arms in single combat until one party yields. We of the Landsmeet shall honor the outcome."

Loghain eyed Alistair with an odd, rather haunted look.

"Maric once told me that a man is made by the quality of his enemies," He said and his voice had softened a little, "I'm not sure if that's a compliment to you or me... and either way, it doesn't matter. Prepare yourself, boy."

Loghain turned away, pausing briefly as Anora started forward. Their eyes locked for a moment and the queen looked very young again, but her father turned his back and went to the other doorway where Cauthrien stood. They put their heads together and Loghain had clearly drawn a line in the sand where Anora was concerned. The queen slowly made her way to Ffion's party as Eamon came down the steps and Alistair faced the others. His expression was set and rather pale, but the determination there gave them reason to hope.

"Alistair," Ffion began uncertainly and the hoarseness of her voice had very little to do with the Tevinter's attack.

A muscle jerked in his cheek and he knew his resolve would break the instant he looked down at her. So instead, he spoke to his uncle when he came level with them.

"He's not going to step down without a fight and I'm not about to let an all-out brawl take place here," He said stubbornly and ignored the way Oghren grumbled unhappily above him, "It'll be better this way."

"Of course, the worst that could happen is you will unravel all the hard work and sacrifices that have gotten you this far," Eamon's voice was sarcastic and sharper than they had ever heard it and then he softened a bit, sharing the concern written across Ffion's face. He continued carefully at first, not wanting Anora to hear any talk of drastic action against her father, but it was for naught. The queen bypassed them and went up the steps to stand with Erlina, her face still pale, "But I am proud of you, Alistair. And you're right; this is the only way to avoid excessive bloodshed. Anora's right, too, Loghain's not the man he was; he's not the fighter he was either. Use his girth against him, wear him out. You should know, he won't... he will not be willing to accept a simple surrender."

"This is news to none of us," Zevran offered, his heart twisting at the look Ffion gave the ex-Templar.

Loghain's armor clinked together as he crossed the room again and Alistair's face hardened. The nobles were retreating from the main floor, giving the duelists room, and Eamon clasped Alistair's shoulder, giving him a nod before going up the steps again.

For the first time, Alistair looked down into Ffion's small open face and she stepped closer. Putting one hand on his wrist, she squeezed briefly and said quietly,

"Come back, Alistair. Please come back to... to us."

She finished that very carefully, but the tone of her voice and the look in her eyes told him what she really meant. And as Wynne and Zevran ushered her up the steps with Tilly and he faced Loghain, he felt invincible.

Which was a good thing, too.

Loghain held his great sword already and it gleamed dangerously in the light of the great hall. Alistair settled his shield on his arm and unsheathed his own blade. The two of them paced, eyeing one another, and Loghain struck first. He hefted his sword and swung at the ex-Templar. Alistair ducked away and took his chance, swinging his shield arm around and clobbering the general's back. Loghain staggered a little and Alistair struck with his sword then, too, making him stumble further away. The crowd around them gasped as Loghain proved himself to be quicker on his feet than anyone would have believed. He rounded on the ex-Templar in a flash with a flurry of blows that kept Alistair strictly on the defensive. They backed towards the throne and Ffion found herself grabbing hold of Zevran's arm with one hand and the railing with the other so that she wouldn't reach for the knives that were calling to her.

Alistair, much more nimble than Loghain, finally ducked away, rolling across the floor and slashing his sword against the general's legs. He sprang to his feet as Loghain whirled with a roar of fury and slammed his shield up into the general's chest. Loghain was breathing raggedly, out of practice, and the blow winded him. He took a few faltering steps back and then rebounded, swinging his sword in huge arcs, hoping to catch the younger man in one of the rotations. But Alistair was much too quick. He simply darted away warily, watching Loghain's face for any sign of weakness. Eamon's advice had been sound; Loghain was wearing himself out, not being as spry as he once was. That didn't mean he wasn't dangerous. His experience had taught him tricks that took Alistair by surprise and the ex-Templar had a number of close calls that were avoided only because he was in better shape.

Loghain swung the sword again and Alistair side-stepped, but the general expected this. He moved with the ex-Templar and the sword caught Alistair's chest, slamming against the armor and rocking him backwards. Loghain followed through, stepping forward to make the blow count and Alistair's sword came up to parry. They were locked together, Alistair's shield arm pinched between their bodies and he reacted in the only way he could. He slammed his head against Loghain's and stunned the general... and himself, if he was being honest. But he recovered quickly, tearing his sword away from Loghain's and bashing the general's chest with his shield again. This time Loghain couldn't catch himself and he stumbled backwards, his sword slipping from his fingers. Alistair moved forward as though to finish him off and Loghain fell heavily to his knees, one hand rubbing at his head and his voice barely audible when he called out roughly.

"Enough," It was a hoarse whisper and he shook his head to clear it, "Enough!"

Alistair, breathing heavily and feeling an odd shakiness in his limbs, glared down at the general. He could hear his blood rushing in his ears and the adrenaline from the fight made the sudden little surge of anger even stronger. This was the man that had betrayed them when they needed him most, killing his son-in-law as surely as if he had become that ogre, leaving Ferelden soldiers to die on that hellish battlefield, and Duncan... The anger was hot, becoming a burning fury and obliterating everything else in his head. If not for the man kneeling before him, he would never have lost his mentor; they would never have been put on this desperate, sometimes hopeless path. He thought of Redcliffe and the losses there; almost losing his uncle and the gut-wrenching doubt surrounding his little cousin's fate... There was so much that never needed to happen and when Eamon shifted his weight above him, Alistair glared up at the nobles.

"No," Anora said breathlessly, grasping the railing and reading Alistair's face more quickly than any of them.

Alistair ignored her and looked back down at Loghain who met his gaze squarely and knew how this was going to end. His eyes were clear; there was no disillusionment in his face as he listened to Alistair's words.

"You know that your actions can't go unpunished," The ex-Templar's voice was hard, "We can't let these things slide."

"No, you can't," Loghain's breathing was still a little ragged and he looked up at Alistair with a new respect, "It seems I was wrong about you, boy, you really are Maric's son. And you have his spirit. Maybe... But it's unimportant. Make it quick."

Alistair's anger flared again and he stepped back, hefting his sword. Anora let out a harsh breath that was very loud in the suddenly still hall.

"You're still my little daughter, Anora," Loghain told her roughly, "To a father, daughters never grow up. They remain little whirlwinds with pigtails and skinned knees forever. You'll always be that, my dear."

Ffion's heart wrenched within her at Anora's crest-fallen expression and before anyone could say another word, Alistair raised his sword again.

"Forget Maric," He said softly, "This is for Duncan."

He mercifully made it quick. He swung the blade with all his might and severed Loghain's head from his body. The general had closed his eyes and so never saw the glint of the steel as it arced down.

Silence hung heavily over the hall and Anora was too shocked for tears as her father's body hit the floor, blood pouring thickly across the stones. She had reached out and grabbed hold of Ffion's hand without realizing it and the Warden winced as the queen's fingers squeezed hard. Anora swayed briefly and Eamon stepped to her other side to keep her from falling over. He thought for a moment that she was going to rail against Alistair but she didn't. She knew it would only work against her and she pulled her training to herself, held her head high, and retreated from their support. She knew as well as any of them that Loghain had had to pay for what he did and she also knew that this was the most merciful way for it to come about. If his fate had been left to the Ferelden people, they would have torn him apart. Quite literally.

"So it's decided," Eamon spoke into the silence, taking charge of the Landsmeet, "Alistair will take his father's throne."

"We've decided this?" Alistair repeated before he could help it, "So soon?"

"If Alistair is unwilling to take the throne, than I will," Anora's voice shook a bit, but she sprang at this opportunity and proved Eamon's warning about her true, "I am more than ready to step forward and rule."

Eamon glanced sidelong at her and then moved away, walking down the steps to join Alistair, Loghain's body sprawled before them. He looked around at the gathered nobility and then met Anora's direct gaze once more.

"I hardly think that you are the right person to mediate this dispute, highness," He said calmly and the blue eyes sought out Ffion's grey. The Warden stiffened and Eamon spoke before she could so much as shake her head at him, "Warden, would you step in here?"

Anora promptly turned about to stare at her and she felt rather than saw the hopeful, almost sheepish look Alistair sent her. She stifled the annoyed sigh that welled within her and then met Alistair's gaze, hoping to come off as thoughtful and impartial.

"Are you ready for this, Alistair?" She asked and though her voice was quiet, it seemed to reverberate around the hall.

Anora let out an angry hiss of breath and Ffion ignored her. They had never agreed on anything and Ffion had more than held up her end of their 'agreement.' She wasn't willing to let the queen throw a wrench into the works here and she didn't give her the chance.

"I can do this," The ex-Templar answered firmly, "Anora may know more about politics than I do, but I am ready and willing to lead us to victory in this Blight. And, to be honest, all she wants is power."

"I-"

"So you're willing to take up Maric and Cailan's title? You'll follow in your father's steps?" Ffion interrupted Anora, raising her voice to drown her out.

There was another silence as Alistair thought that over thoroughly. His honey eyes looked beyond Ffion as he considered what this would mean to him personally and their company as a whole. It took him a moment and then his gaze met hers and he smiled softly. His determination in winning her over was more intense than ever and he shrugged off all of the other doubts. If he could keep her with him then he would be fine and that made his voice stronger when he replied.

"Ferelden needs a Theirin on the throne and I am going to give her that," He said and he straightened himself as Anora once more looked like she would interrupt, "Which is to say... Yes, I'm ready."

Ffion felt that same little thrill of pride and she ignored the poisoned glare Anora gave her. She met Eamon's gaze and inclined her head to him.

"Then let it be that Alistair step forward as king," She said and turned partially to Anora, knowing the queen would not like this.

Eamon kept the smile from his face, but only just. He faced Anora as well and wondered what was hidden behind those intense blue eyes. She pressed her lips together and glared at the Warden but had refrained from saying anything, so far.

"The Landsmeet has spoken, Anora," Eamon told her, bringing the attention back to what was to be decided, "You must now swear fealty to our new king and relinquish all claims to the throne."

Anora pushed away from the railing and then shoved her way through Ffion's companions to the stairs. She descended these, her eyes on Eamon, and she was still striving to come off as Ferelden's benevolent queen when she spoke.

"With all due respect, Arl Eamon," She said and her voice was cold, "If you think that I will be taking that oath, you know nothing of me."

The Arl let out an impatient sigh.

"Anora, be reasonable," He said mildly.

"Reason clearly left this Landsmeet when the Warden spoke," Anora replied in a biting tone, "I cannot step aside so meekly."

Eamon's eyes flashed a little and his voice became sharp again.

"We can't leave Ferelden in a state of civil war," He glanced up at Ffion briefly and then continued, "If she will not swear fealty to you, Alistair, then she is a threat to our unity. What would you have us do?"

"Lock her in the tower," Alistair's response was prompt, "Keep her safe and well so that if I don't survive the Blight, Ferelden will still have a ruler."

Anora turned her attention to Alistair for the first time and her look was one of surprised pleasure.

"You would give me the throne?" She asked, "After all of this?"

"I said if I don't survive the Blight, Anora," Alistair replied ruefully, "Don't let your eyes get bigger than your stomach. For now, you'll be in the tower, under careful watch, until we resolve this."

Anora searched his gaze and then nodded. The guards hesitated for a moment, glancing quickly at Cauthrien, who knew her place and didn't direct them. Alistair waved at them and Anora took a step back.

"Thank you, Alistair," Her voice was quiet and impressed in spite of herself, "I do not think that I could show you such mercy if our roles were reversed."

"Well, don't get used to it. And don't spread the word; I have a reputation to uphold."

Eamon spoke before Alistair could continue, though the scattered chuckles these words incited were rather encouraging.

"Well, then, we're decided. Guards! Take the queen to the tower. Gently, if you please, and see that she has what she needs to make her comfortable."

The guards stepped in and escorted Anora away while Ffion and the rest of the companions descended the stairs and Eamon turned his attention back to Alistair.

"Will you address the Landsmeet, highness?" He said and his blue eyes fixed on Alistair.

He blinked at his uncle and then nodded, moving forward.

"Right, um... I never knew my father, but from what I have learned, he never hesitated in his campaign to keep Ferelden safe from her enemies," Alistair spoke hesitantly and then his voice gained strength, "When the Blight has been defeated I will return to Denerim and take up my responsibilities as king; until then Arl Eamon will rule as my regent. And, if she will accept the charge, I ask my fellow Warden to lead my armies," He turned to look at Ffion, who was staring at him with wide grey eyes and flushed cheeks, "Shall we finish this together?"

The Warden blinked again, astonished at this sudden change in the ex-Templar. She wasn't sure what she had expected, but it definitely hadn't been this, and she gave herself a mental shake before answering.

"I accept, Al- highness, and yes, let's end this."

A smile graced his lips that made her blush deepen and it took everything within him to face the room again.

"Then we shall stand together," He told the nobles, "We will need our combined strength to end the Blight once and for all and I know that you will join me to protect this land we love! Let's be united now and take the fight to the Archdemon!"

The room exploded with applause and Alistair had come completely into his own. Ffion's head was whirling with the suddenness of everything and they only lingered long enough in the hall to oversee the removal of Loghain's body and the cleaning up of the blood. Furthering the support of both his allies and enemies, Alistair directed that the general be given formal funeral rites and though they did not attend, they heard later that the ceremony was pulled off beautifully. They returned to Eamon's estate and Alistair was determined to talk to Ffion about their future, together, in spite of the rain and absence of victory over the Darkspawn. But fate had other plans.

Jess met them at the doors, smiling widely and having eyes only for Ffion. Her face alight with pleasure, she shared the good news. Gilmore had finally opened his eyes and asked for Ffion. The Warden's heart skipped several beats and she grabbed Zevran's hand briefly before she smiled beatifically and flew to Gilmore's room. Wynne joined her and she only took long enough to look the young man over and give him greater odds than he had had before, and then she left the two of them alone. Ffion sat beside Gilmore's bed for hours, her hands wrapped around one of his, as they talked and Zevran, unable to keep from pacing by the door, had never seen her happier.

Eamon, Alistair, and Teagan meanwhile had decided to leave for Redcliffe first thing the next morning. Ffion's hard-won allies were converging there already and it was Alistair's call to leave a contingent of soldiers at Denerim and meet the bulk of the army at the village. When Ffion heard this idea, she was all for it and her only contention was that Gilmore be taken to Redcliffe as well. Neither Eamon nor Alistair had the heart to argue with her and so a wagon was arranged and a few horses that were no longer needed were donated to this. And so, with one new king and a long lost friend added to the ranks, they left Denerim to gather Ffion's army and take the fight to the Archdemon.


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