Shades of Grey and Black

Swooping Witch-Thieves, Drinking Blood, and Darkspawn Attacks... Now That's a Party!

Morrigan's mother lived in a small neat hut at the edge of a swamp and was sitting outside the door as if she had known they were coming all along. She got to her feet, setting aside her sewing and watching them approach with eyes the same color as her daughter's. Her grey and white hair was cut just at her shoulders and the features that were soft in Morrigan's face were sharp in hers, creased with age. She was just a shade shorter than her daughter but Ffion was still the smallest amongst them and she didn't allow it to intimidate her. She stepped forward when the men stopped several yards away and squared her shoulders as she gave the old woman a small bow.

"Grey Wardens from Ostagar, Mother," Morrigan said in a bored voice as she stepped closer to the hut, "They have questions about treaties that have been stolen by... witch-thieves."

She added this with a withering glance in Alistair's direction. The ex-Templar stiffened and, as if to prove he was no coward, positioned himself next to Ffion.

"Let them speak for themselves, girl," The old woman said and her voice was ancient and a little scratchy: like she had a cold she just couldn't get rid of.

"She's right, serah," Ffion commented, "Morrigan told us that you have the treaties that were in that chest."

"Such manners," Her faded yellow eyes danced as though Ffion had just told her an amusing joke, "I wonder, would you be as polite if you knew what I really was, child?"

Ffion glanced side-long at Alistair before she could help it. The ex-Templar shrugged, clearly as lost as she.

"Is there a reason I wouldn't be, serah?" She questioned and frowned at Morrigan's soft sigh and eye roll.

"What if she's trying to tell us that the rumors are true?" Daveth hissed, "What if she really is a Witch of the Wilds?"

The old woman cackled and pressed her hands together in delight.

"'Witch of the Wilds?'" She repeated, "Morrigan has been boasting again. The girl enjoys such things. Oh, watch how she dances in the moonlight!"

Morrigan's look was pure poison as she glared at her mother and seethed at her antics. Her fists clenched at her sides and she replied sharply,

"They did not come to hear your wild tales, Mother, nor your feats as the great and terrible Flemeth."

Alistair took a full step back and Daveth and Jory swore audibly. Ffion simply arched a brow, studying Flemeth with curiousity, but disbelief, as the old woman cackled again. She had heard the stories, much like everyone else, about Flemeth being the very first Witch of the Wilds: a woman that was more magic then mortal with a talent for disposing of men using fear alone. Ffion's response was always that she would be safe because she was a woman and therefore had a sort of immunity.

"The Flemeth?" She asked and her voice was lost under Jory's.

"I told you this was a stupid thing to do! If being a Warden means dealing with witches, then I am done!"

Flemeth frowned at him as Daveth nodded vigorously and they both began walking backwards. Alistair at least remained where he was next to Ffion, who was still thinking about what she had been told.

"You don't believe this?" Flemeth asked, turning her attention back to Ffion, "Or does your woman's mind give you different insights then these fools with you?"

Alistair made a warning sound in the back of his throat that fell short of becoming a protest when Ffion laid a hand on his arm. Her grey eyes were on Flemeth again and she took a moment to answer what should have been an easy question.

"Anymore... I don't know what to believe," She finally said simply and let her hand fall. She gave Flemeth a shrug and half smile, "I simply came to ask about the treaties. Do you still have them?"

Flemeth was studying her with much more interest now and there was more than a glint of admiration in her strange eyes. She glanced at the rest of them quickly and then grinned fully at Ffion.

"That statement possesses much more wisdom then it implies," She observed softly and had suddenly taken on the air of a teacher most pleased with her pupil, "Be always aware... Or is it oblivious? Don't mind me, child, I'm a twisted old woman. And yes, I do have your treaties. Contrary to what your companions might tell you, I took them to keep them safe. Wait a moment and I will get them."

She disappeared into the hut momentarily while those gathered exchanged puzzled glances, and returned with a leather bag that had seen better days. She handed this over to Ffion.

"Thank you, Flemeth, you have shown much more kindness than I thought possible," Alistair told her bluntly, "I don't think I would have done the same if the roles were reversed."

"See that you continue keeping your mind open, Warden," Flemeth answered with the same direct tone and she spared a look at the other men before dismissing them and meeting Ffion's gaze, "And you, child, push too hard and your strength disappears. Slow down. Morrigan, show your guests out of the Wilds, girl."

Ffion hardly had time to blink at Flemeth before the old woman disappeared into the hut once more and Morrigan heaved a sigh and led the way back to the ruins where she left them with a nod and was gone again like she had never been there. Alistair watched Ffion the entire trek back to Ostagar while Jory and Daveth discussed the witches at length in less than glowing terms. She felt the ex-Templar's curiousity and ignored it. After all, she had refrained from giving her surname for a reason and if he really wanted, he could find out what it was with very little effort.

The guard at the gate allowed them to enter Ostagar just as the last rays of the sun disappeared from the sky and Alistair became focused again, leading them back to Duncan's fire. The senior Warden was crouched in front of the flames, deep in thought as he stared at the embers. He glanced up when they approached though and smiled genuinely as Ffion handed over Flemeth's pouch and her vial of Darkspawn blood; the others following her example. Jory immediately launched into a description of the witches and went on about how the soldiers needed to take care of them while Duncan listened with half an ear, nodding when it called for it and then soothing the younger man with a few empty promises. He glanced up at Ffion questioningly every now and then, but she was clearly elsewhere and didn't seem to notice. Alistair also watched the new recruit worriedly and Duncan acted quickly to keep everyone on track.

"Are you all prepared then?" He asked, looking around at each in turn when it was clear that Jory was finished with his story and Daveth quit interrupting with his own comments. Ffion was the first to answer with a nod and the men followed suit, "Very well. The mages have been preparing while you were hunting for the Darkspawn and we are ready to begin. Come with me."

He led them to a small deserted courtyard which looked to be part of an old temple set away from the bustle of the camp, not to mention out of sight. Alistair, seeming to act on some unspoken cue, suddenly motioned for the three of them to wait while Duncan moved across the courtyard into the shadows. Ffion watched him go with a frown but Alistair was busy with distracting the other men. She dropped to a crouch and stroked Tilly's soft chestnut head, putting her face close to the dog's ears. At times, she swore she could catch the wood smoke and marjoram smell of the castle's kitchen or the lavender and magnolia that always made her think of her mother's gardens; but tonight there was a heady scent of leather and fresh air that made her heart constrict. When she was a girl and would sneak downstairs to greet her father after he arrived home late, these were the smells that clung to him; sometimes with the tang of the sea or the smoke of his favorite pipe tobacco. And with the words of Flemeth still ringing clearly in her head, it made her more homesick than ever. But Duncan was calling to them and lights flared to life where he was standing and she didn't have time to dwell on that anymore.

The Warden was solemn as he stood beside a heavy stone table, his hands clasped behind his back and black eyes watching them closely. Jory and Daveth both stood forward as Ffion remained a little behind, Tilly leaning against her. She was tired; that much he could see, and there was emotion in her face that he knew she was vying to keep hidden.

"We are gathered here to initiate you three to the order of the Grey Wardens," He said and his deep voice was solemn, "You have been successful in your gathering of the Darkspawn blood and now it will be determined who shall be chosen and who shall be left behind. So it has been since the first order of the Wardens drank of the Darkspawn blood, mastering their taint, and creating a bond between man and beast that enables us to seek them out as they seek us."

"D-Drink their..." Jory's voice trailed off as he realized what Duncan was telling him and his broad face was suddenly a little less gruff than it had been. His chin became weak and he didn't realize the others were now looking at him in disgust, "We have to drink the... blood of those... creatures?"

Duncan remained patient though his black eyes watched the big soldier more closely than before.

"That is what makes us what we are and where we get the ability to sense the Darkspawn," He looked at Alistair as he added, "There are only a few words that are spoken at the beginning of each ritual. Alistair?"

Alistair's voice went soft and flowed smoothly as he recited the Warden prayer with a conviction that was absent from his normal speech.

"Join us, brothers and sisters. Join us in the shadows where we stand vigilant. Join us as we carry the duty that cannot be forsworn. And should you perish, know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten. And that one day we shall join you."

Duncan lifted his head and turned to the table where the empty vials and a heavy pewter goblet were standing. He took the goblet in both hands and faced them again, seeing how the eyes of all three had widened. Jory was the most nervous while Daveth and Ffion both held a sort of resigned excitement. Daveth stepped forward, taking the goblet and meeting Duncan's gaze.

"One sip, Daveth, and we will see if you have been chosen to follow the Wardens," Duncan said quietly.

The young man stared down at the Darkspawn blood for a long moment and then closed his eyes, put his lips to the rim and took a sip. Duncan accepted the cup again and stepped back. They all watched Daveth expectantly and were an audience as he swallowed, coughed, and then kept on coughing. He dropped to his knees, his hands going to his throat as his eyes bugged and he gasped for breath between each shuddering gag. For a brief moment, it seemed he finally sucked in air and then his eyes rolled back and he went stiff, falling to the flagstones and giving one last shudder before his body went still.

Duncan's jaw clenched and his black eyes went to Jory who had backed up to the wall behind him and was looking about wildly for an escape. Alistair and Ffion watched, wordless with horror as Duncan set the cup on the table, one hand going for the knife in his belt.

"I don't want this..." Jory protested, "I have a... a wife... a son... I can't... I won't..."

"Jory, you were chosen," Duncan said quietly as the soldier drew his long sword and set himself in a defensive stance, "You can't turn back."

"I won't!" Jory shouted and flung himself at Duncan, his blade singing through the air.

Duncan was faster. He ducked underneath the powerful swing and thrust his own blade up, catching Jory between his armor. The big soldier went slack in his arms and Duncan whispered something for his ears only before letting the body fall beside Daveth's. Ffion drew in a startled breath as Duncan's black eyes went to her almost hopefully. Tilly was on edge beside her, her hackles going up and a soft growl rumbling in her throat. Brushing her fingers gently against the dog's fur, Ffion squared her shoulders and stepped towards the senior Warden. If she died, so be it. Wasn't it what she had been wanting for the past two weeks anyway? She could feel Alistair's gaze as she took the cup and didn't pause to think before she tipped it up and drank.

The blood oozed down her throat like it was something alive and began burning like nothing she'd ever felt. Duncan instantly took the goblet from her and she hardly realized it. Her throat was closing, the burning intensifying so that she was being stuck with probing needles, and she put one hand up as though that would ease it. Tilly was barking and whining, her nose bumping into Ffion's face and she realized she had collapsed to her knees, gasping for breath that teased her just out of reach. Black spots danced frantically before her eyes and she was fading quickly. Dropping to all fours, she attempted to say something, anything, and the last thing she thought was: I'm sorry, Tilly! before everything went dark.

Her dreams were just as bad. They were wrought with the burning pain, flames that licked at her skin and metal shards that cut into her as though she was a block of Nan's cheese. And then there were nightmares of her family's death, which were even worse. Father and Marmie both blaming her for not doing more; Oren screaming to her for help, and having to watch as Oriana was brutalized and slowly tortured. The last thing she saw before bolting upright was a monstrous creature that resembled a dragon. It soared through the air, landing with a crash on top of the tower she remembered vaguely belonging to the city of Denerim, and letting out a triumphant roar she knew signaled the end of the rule of men...

"Out of the three of you, I had the most hope in your success," Duncan's deep voice was immediately to her left and she jumped, startled, "Here, this will help."

He extended a glass of warm ale and she could smell how strong it was. This, too, burned as it went down, but it was a pleasant warmth and she had to smile as Tilly attempted to crawl onto the cot like she was a puppy again. Ffion's grey eyes went around and she realized quite suddenly she was in Duncan's own personal tent and the fondness for him grew deeper.

"How long have I been out?" She asked and the raspy exhaustion in her voice surprised even her. She rubbed Tilly's ears as the dog gave up trying to worm her way into her lady's lap.

"An hour at the most," Duncan was on his feet, taking the mug from her and refilling it with water this time. He remained standing as he watched her drain the entire cup once more, "It's not unusual. Actually it's much shorter than my own Joining. I was unconscious for nearly four hours. They were afraid I would never wake up. How do you feel?"

She chuckled dryly; pulling at the shirt she was wearing and hoping that it had been him, and not Alistair, that had removed her armor. Wondering where that thought had come from, she raked her fingers back through her hair and held her head.

"I am not sure yet," She answered and was pleased to hear some of her strength returning, "The pain... I'm no stranger to broken bones and stitches but that... I have never felt anything like it."

He sent her that piercing, knowing look and she felt like she should expect a scolding.

"It sounds like the nightmares were worse," He said mildly.

Ffion lifted her head and met his gaze. She could feel her back and shoulders tightening with more than just the distaste for this topic and tried to keep a hold of her tongue.

"That's my business," She replied coolly and wondered if she was strong enough to get to her feet without embarrassing herself, "And it's also something I will have to deal with, Warden, though the dragon is... less than encouraging."

"Duncan," He corrected, "And it's an Archdemon, but it doesn't really matter what the name is. That is the creature we will have to defeat if this becomes a true Blight. Rest a moment longer and when you feel ready; join me in the southern courtyard. The king and his general are discussing tactics and I'm sure it will be of interest to you. Cailan also thought you could bring something valuable to the table. He has yet to locate your brother but there are a lot of troops here, he'll turn up."

Ffion shifted around on the cot, placing her bare feet on the rough rug and meeting his gaze.

"I'm sorry it had to end that way with Jory," She said softly and watched as his eyes flickered with emotion, "And Daveth as well. They were both brave men."

"I am sorry, too," He answered and stood at the entrance to his tent. His expression became knowing again and he faced her, "Alistair has been worried about you, but curiously, he doesn't seem to know who you are. Does he?"

Ffion stroked Tilly's soft heavy head as the dog set it in her lap and gave the senior Warden a half smile that was exhaustion itself.

"It may have slipped my mind," She confessed, "But I am keeping this to myself for my own reasons."

"Understood. We are meeting in the next half hour; the southern courtyard," And with that, he was gone.

Ffion was slow to get going again and still fastening one of the straps on her leather breastplate when she pushed the tent flap open. Alistair perched on a log beside the campfire and smiled at her as she emerged. The smell of stew permeated the air and he motioned to it with one hand.

"I know Duncan wanted you to meet with him and the king, but you have enough time to eat something if you like," He offered, "And don't worry, it's not my cooking. I'm kind of a joke where that's concerned, but the Chantry sisters are unmatched."

She allowed a warm smile and stepped over to take the proffered bowl. Tilly looked at her expectantly as she settled on the log. Her muscles were sore and rather weak, making her feel as though she had been fasting for days and she suddenly discovered just how hungry she was.

"You can give her something if you want," She told him as Tilly transferred her attention to the ex-Templar, "She's a shameless beggar."

He chuckled and spooned a little stew into his empty bowl before setting it on the ground at their feet. Tilly instantly devoured it and perched on her haunches, allowing Alistair to stroke her ears as she waited for more.

"She's a beautiful Mabari," He commented, "Have you had her long?"

"Four years, now," Ffion answered and felt the sting of grief she wasn't sure she'd ever get over. It was custom for the Cousland women to receive gifts on their eighteenth birthdays as a sort of coming out and Ffion, being as she was, hadn't wanted the fancy ball and over-the-top gown. Instead, she wanted her very own war hound and her father couldn't refuse that. He hadn't been able to refuse her much of anything, "Everything you hear about Mabari is true. She would jump in front of lightning for me if she understood how that worked."

He was looking at her now with a slightly pitying expression.

"I'm sorry you had to see that... with Daveth and Jory," He said slowly, "When I Joined, we only lost one out of five. To lose all but one is rather... discouraging."

"Do very many refuse to Join when they've come that close?" She asked and didn't have to clarify that she was talking about Jory.

"No, we all understand what being a Grey Warden entails. I mean, if we wanted to live out our lives with wives and husbands and have a family, none of us would be here."

She arched her brows at him as she placed her bowl on the ground for Tilly.

"You mean you didn't want those things?"

"I was raised in the Chantry after my tenth birthday," He replied and spoke ruefully, "Everyone expected me to become a Templar and I was well on my way when Duncan came, looking for new recruits. The Grand Cleric wasn't going to let me go with him and he had to Conscript me. Maker, was she ever furious."

"Why wouldn't she let you go with him? If it was something you wanted and you hadn't taken your vows yet, what did it matter to the Grand Cleric?" Ffion, not willing to admit she may have been raised spoiled, couldn't grasp that someone would be forced to do something they truly didn't want to do.

"The Chantry is against any and all mages that roam free and it didn't help that Duncan had a few with him when he visited," Alistair talked to the fire and he looked borderline guilty, as though speaking disdainfully of the Chantry might somehow harm him, "Also, the Grand Cleric wasn't partial to the Wardens to begin with and to lose even one potential Templar to them was a great blow to her pride. But I've kept you long enough, Duncan will be waiting."

She nodded and got to her feet, hoping they would have future chances to talk. Her studies growing up were limited to just the surface relationships amongst the different sects and she was lucky enough to have had a lenient father who owned an extensive library which he gave her free reign over. But still, with all her years of studying, first-hand accounts of the life outside Cousland castle were priceless. Her features transformed into a frown when the ex-Templar remained seated and she met his gaze.

"You're not coming?"

"Ah, no, I have some other errands to run and Duncan wanted just you," He replied and there was nothing but a polite negative in his voice.

Ffion's frown deepened further and her brows drew together.

"But why me?" She questioned, confused, "I'm just a new Warden, the newest Warden. What could the king and Loghain want with me?"

To her surprise, Alistair's cheeks began flushing and he poked at the fire again to avoid her gaze.

"Well, I may have... boasted a little about you," He steeled himself and glanced up, "Before being shipped off to the Chantry, I was raised in Redcliffe castle. We turn out some of the finest archers and knife-throwers in Ferelden and... Ffion, I have never seen anyone who could match what you're capable of."

It was Ffion's turn to blush and the pink in her cheeks set off the grey eyes wonderfully. She shook her head a little and gave him a shrug.

"I simply had too much time on my hands when I was young," She answered softly, "And I was doing what I had to."

"Whatever it is, Cailan and Duncan want to know if you have any advice," Alistair went back to pushing at the embers, "Take advantage of this, Ffion."

Ffion was able to find the southern courtyard without difficulty and approached the table where Duncan was standing with more than a little trepidation. She had been raised amongst nobility, was nobility herself no matter how much she sometimes hated it, and the sight of the king's gold armor and General Loghain's own brushed silverite, intimidated her unlike anything else.

"There you are," Duncan greeted softly.

The king and Loghain were talking rather heatedly and that's why they missed her entrance. There was an elderly woman garbed in the Chantry's standard yellow and red and her gaze was fixed on a tall, willowy bald man whose staff proclaimed his title of mage. Ffion nodded to both and then stepped next to Duncan, Tilly on her heels.

"I'm sorry I'm late," She said quietly, "Alistair was kind enough to get me something to eat and we talked for a little while."

"Loghain, it doesn't matter," Cailan said shortly and turned to the table, his cheeks flushed with anger and normally gentle blue eyes snapping in frustration, "I won't be hiding like a scared child while my armies fight this hoard. The men and women need to see that their king is behind them and I intend on seeing this through. Now, drop it and let's get back to the planning."

Ffion bowed to him as Duncan managed to shunt her forward while staying at her side.

"You're being a fool," Loghain's sharp, rasping voice was cool and Ffion arched her brows at the way he addressed the king, "Your father would never have allowed-"

"My father is dead, Loghain, and he would have done the same in my shoes," Cailan suddenly realized Ffion's presence and he smiled, "Lady Cousland, I understand there are congratulations in order."

Ffion inclined her head and for the first time since the Ritual and the horrors of Daveth and Jory's deaths, felt proud. She was part of something bigger than herself and her own world; a close-knit band that she had always admired and it felt... wonderful. It was the distraction she had needed and she was surer than ever it was her way to get revenge on the bastard Howe.

"Yes, thank you, sire," She said as she felt the general's questioning gaze.

"Loghain, this is the young woman I spoke of, Ffion Cousland," Cailan said and his pleasant disposition was taking hold again, "The one Duncan told me might be of help placing our archers. We need to decide quickly so we can direct them where they will do the most damage."

Ffion forgot her astonished embarrassment and bashfulness with the king's personal request for her as she stepped forward. She was emboldened by her curiosity and even ignored Loghain's arched brows and disbelieving look, studying the map spread on the table in front of her.

"Why the sudden urgency?" She asked, "I thought the onslaught was still a couple of days away?"

Duncan smiled rather indulgently and it reminded her painfully of her father, making her expectant to hear a slightly reproachful 'Pup.' But it didn't and wouldn't come and instead it was Duncan's deep voice that answered,

"You're a Warden now, Ffion, with the ability to sense the Darkspawns' presence. Didn't you feel the other Wardens; Alistair; me?"

Loghain was on the verge of interrupting, but he held himself in check. His son-in-law was fascinated by this conversation and it didn't matter that the general was family; the young man was still King of Ferelden.

"Well, I..." Ffion trailed off, not sure how to continue. So that's what that needling was at the back of her mind. That feeling of a threat lurking nearby and making her hand itch for her blades; a feeling that was so much more poignant than simple intuition, "Yes, of course I can. But what does that have to do with this?"

"Perhaps there are too many Wardens for you to differentiate, but that's common," Duncan was eternally patient, "The presence of Darkspawn intensified dramatically an hour and a half ago and the scouts are now reporting a force of them within a few miles of here."

He watched Ffion's face with interest, wondering what her reaction would be. She blinked in surprise and then her grey eyes became crystal clear and he could practically see how rapidly the wheels in her head were turning. This quickness merely affirmed his first impression of her and he was doubly grateful she had survived the Joining.

"Where are the archers currently placed, sire?" She asked and at once became a Teyrn's daughter.

Cailan bent over the map and motioned for her to do the same. As she did so, she saw that it wasn't so much a map as a layout of Ostagar itself. The king was pushing a little peg towards her and left it situated at an upper bridge. It only took a moment for Ffion to get her bearings and discover the bridge was beyond and to the left of where they were standing. She glanced in that direction but the shadows were too deep to make out clear details.

"This was the place recommended to us," Cailan answered as Duncan came to stand at Ffion's elbow and Loghain leaned against the table. The general was secure enough in his station to dare looking bored, but no one paid him any mind, "Archers here and more below, mixed in with the men. Uldred's mages will be situated above as well. We will need all the long range attacks made as soon as the Darkspawn are upon us."

"My men will be waiting for the signal," This was Loghain's harsh voice again and he was leaning over the map beside his son-in-law, "We are posted to the east and when the signal comes, we will execute our flanking attack."

Ffion was surprised at the simplicity. This was the same general that had wrestled Orlesians out of Ferelden with Cailan's father, Maric. He was a legend but she knew well enough how, sometimes, the more simplistic the plan, the better.

"And therein lays our other problem," Loghain's voice continued, interrupting her thoughts, "Who will be lighting the signal? I have a few men that are willing. It's a small task, but a very vital one."

"You already know my mind is made up on that subject, Loghain," Cailan had become stubborn again, the set of his jaw enough to say that he wasn't going to be talked out of his idea, "We will send Alistair and Ffion."

Ffion was surprised and dismayed by this and some of this must have showed in her face. Duncan bowed slightly and spoke before she could,

"Of course, majesty, and I am glad you settled on that choice."

They didn't spend much more time with the king and general; just long enough for Ffion to make an impression with a good eye for picking out better archers' positions. Though she was still very disappointed about missing the bulk of the fighting with her other assignment, she didn't put up near the fuss that Alistair did when he learned about it. She had only the one outburst, after they left the king's company, and that was to ask why she couldn't accompany Duncan. The older Warden merely smiled with a paternal fondness and placed one hand on her shoulder.

"The king has always been adamant that it be the Wardens to light the signal, ever since we came up with this loose idea weeks ago. Why else do you think we chose a place with such an intact tower?" He began and there was an undercurrent of steel developing in his tone, though that last had more than a hint of sarcasm.

"He only really wanted us after you made the suggestion," Alistair muttered, showing no hesitation in being borderline insubordinate.

Duncan wasn't affected. He dropped his hand from Ffion's shoulder, spared a glance at Alistair, and then shrugged his own shoulders. He suddenly looked very much his age in the flaring light of the campfire and Ffion could see the instant concern on Alistair's face.

"That is neither here nor there," He answered, "Cailan wanted trusted men to do this task and who does he trust more than the Wardens? Besides, he places too much faith in Loghain, who would much rather dictate from afar. The general's retirement should have happened long ago."

The last statement was added more to himself than anything else and Ffion, either not seeing Alistair's head shake or choosing to ignore it, blurted,

"But that's General Loghain! He wouldn't turn traitor on Maric's son, would he?"

Duncan was pulled back from wherever his mind had wandered and seemed to realize just then what he had said.

"Of course not," He amended, but it was spoken too quickly; too defensively, and this time Alistair frowned at him as well, "Like I said, we need someone that we can trust to light the beacon in time and sending two just makes more sense than sending a troop. When the assault begins, you will have no more than an hour to reach the top of the tower. We will signal you when to light and if something goes awry, you will have to use your own judgement."

Ffion was still burning with curiosity at the implication that Loghain might not be as loyal as they believed, but she listened to Duncan patiently.

"All right, all right," Alistair capitulated and the teasing note was back in his voice, "I'll agree to this one, but if Cailan asks me to put on a dress and dance the Remigold, I'm going to have to draw the line."

Ffion found herself grinning genuinely at that image and was surprised at how easily the ex-Templar made her feel like her old self. She glanced up at him.

"Way to take a stand, Alistair."

He returned the grin and was almost a little nervous at the mischief suddenly gleaming in her eyes. There was enough there that it seemed very plausible she might talk him into doing just that or maybe get him drunk and let him make a fool of himself on his own. Duncan shook his head and Alistair spoke before the senior Warden could,

"Well, I have to retain some pride, don't I?" At Duncan's long suffering sigh, he was adding more seriously, his voice taking on an edge of excitement, "And after the signal, we can join the fight?"

"Yes, so long as everything has gone well," The indulgent tone was back and for a brief moment, Duncan's gaze was rather wistful. It only lasted a moment though and he looked at them almost severely while he added, "Remember, above all else, you are Grey Wardens now and it is your responsibility to keep Ferelden safe from anything that may threaten her. No matter what happens, never forget your oath or your duties."

Ffion felt a sudden irrational fear as though this would be the last time she'd see the elder Warden and as a warning note was blown on Ostagar's war horn, she tried to shake the dread. She gave him a formal Warden bow, arms criss-crossed over her chest as she had seen all the other Wardens do.

"Maker go with you, Duncan," Alistair said somberly.

"Maker go with us all," He replied and added, "Remember: one hour."

"The Tower of Ishal is in the next courtyard, across the bride to the east," Alistair told her as they headed up the stairs to cross to the eastern fortifications.

Ffion knew he was talking just out of excitement. The battle was starting and she almost froze when she caught sight of the mass of creatures swarming towards Ostagar. That tingling telling her about the Darkspawn presence had grown into a full blown irritation and the other Wardens didn't help matters. She stuck close to Alistair and Tilly was right on her heels as they started across the bridge. The sounds of fighting were echoing through the valley spread before and up the canyon behind Ostagar and the number of Darkspawn was not encouraging.

They were no more than halfway across, skirting the archers and mages on the parapets, when the world suddenly rocked violently, sending them crashing to the rough stone.

Ffion felt Tilly's weight against her legs and she sat up, trying to ignore the nausea that threatened to overwhelm her. The Mabari was fine, just stunned, as was Alistair. Ffion's ears were ringing and she could hear faint cries and yells that were deadened even more. Alistair got unsteadily to his feet, trying to grab her elbow and help her up, too. Tilly was shaken as she pressed close to her lady, tail between her legs and ears laid flat, looking for some tangible threat she could attack.

It wasn't easy for Ffion to leave the wounded, but Alistair was firm and the urgency of their task was suddenly heavier than before. They bolted down the remainder of the bridge and to the next courtyard where they were met by two men who came running from the tower. Their faces were terrified and the mage's cowl had been knocked askew.

"Wardens!" The soldier greeted and the relief in that word was palpable, "The tower! There are Darkspawn crawling all over the tower!"

"What?!" Alistair exclaimed and his honey colored eyes went up the length of the tower as though he was expecting to see the monsters clambering up the walls, "What do you mean; they're inside the tower?"

"They came from nowhere," The mage cut in, "We weren't prepared and no one expected this."

"We have to press on, Alistair," Ffion commented and her calm surprised even herself.

"Those bastards decimated my troop," The soldier said quickly as Alistair nodded an affirmative to Ffion, "I'd like to help if you'll have me?"

They agreed and Alistair couldn't help but glance at the mage. His pale blue eyes were still wide with the horrors that he had seen but his chin was set stubbornly and he gave a single firm nod as though he was trying to convince himself.

"Yes, me too. What they did to my senior enchanter... Someone needs to pay for that."

Banded together now, they hurried up the steps to the next courtyard where the tower was and both Alistair and Ffion brought the other two up short. That niggling in the back of Ffion's mind, the hum and swirl of what was the Darkspawn taint running through her, spiked sharply and she was ready with her swords before the Genlock they came across was aware of them. Ahead there were six other creatures lording over fallen soldiers and in no time they realized they were not alone. The mage and Ffion stood back, firing with both magic and arrows while Alistair and the soldier danced forward among the monsters. The mage took out the Emissary with a shaft of fire that was painful to look at and Tilly downed the Hurlock that swung for the unprotected back of the soldier. Alistair was struggling with the last two Genlocks and when he gave one his undivided attention, the other threw itself at him. Ffion reacted reflexively and a brief moment later one of her prized, razor sharp knives was embedded deeply in the monster's throat.

Alistair blinked at her as she came up to pry it from the thick skin and wipe it clean with an expression of distaste. He studied her briefly and checked another reason to be happy she was on his side.

"That was... great," He said finally and she seemed surprised he was praising her, "Thanks."

"It had to be done," She answered simply with a shrug, "Let's go."

They pressed on and entered what Alistair could only think of as the tower of hell. The first floor was ransacked and the smell of death and decay was thick in the air. Shelves were overturned, crates and chests broken open: there were bodies of soldiers and mages and Mabari amongst the Darkspawn: the floor was slick with blood in some places and the strange, pulsing fleshy sacks left by the monsters made the smell even worse. Ffion could still feel the Darkspawn about but with the creatures crawling all over the place, it was impossible to differentiate between distances.

Alistair was leading the way and just about to enter the big foyer from the entry when Ffion grabbed his elbow. Against his front shin was a thin wire that, if not looked for, would have been invisible.

"Don't move," She told him and then glanced at the mage, "Make sure nothing surprises us. I need to find this trap."

Successfully frozen by her words, Alistair hated how vulnerable he felt standing completely in the open.

"How did you know it would be there?" He asked his brown eyes going everywhere in the room.

"I was looking for it," She answered absently, choosing not to mention that these were the exact traps that she and Gilmore used to set for Fergus and the other soldiers, with a less violent outcome, "It was too quiet. Do you think they have trouble differentiating us from the other Darkspawn?"

The ex-Templar was confused by her sudden change and then understood what she asked. She moved further along the wall, following the trip wire to the end.

"I would guess that they aren't too bright and they react on pure instinct. When they sense us, they're stupid enough to think we're other creatures. Can't I just step over this thing?"

"No, don't move," The answer was automatic and Ffion crouched at the trap she found, trying to gauge how to remove the wire without blasting everyone with the flaming gas that was bound to be released, "You've pushed the wire too far forward and you'll run the risk of pulling it out if you step back. Just... don't move."

She was bent over the trap again and within moments had it disabled and agreeing with Alistair on the intelligence of these beasts. They pressed on and came up on the troop that was waiting for the trap to spring. The monsters were caught unawares and though they outnumbered Ffion's little band, they were taken down with ease. Alistair led the way to the door to the second floor and they went through their same routine. Ffion and the mage tried to stay back, protecting Alistair and the soldier with their ranged attacks. Tilly cantered about in front of her lady, never allowing any of the monsters within a few yards of her and the mage proved especially adept with healing magic. His flame blast was also a good one and the smell of death was soon covered by the sickly, almost sweet odor of burning flesh.

They made a good team and, time being of the essence, they were soon merely cutting down the Darkspawn, sometimes not even making sure they were dead. Everything went well until they reached the top floor. Alistair charged through and was prepared for anything but what he saw. He came to a sudden stop, back-peddling into Ffion who was right behind him and almost knocking her to the floor.

Ahead of them, standing between them and the beacon that lay dead and dark on its hearth, was a hunched ogre. There was the sharp sound of bones breaking and the ominous tear of something that wasn't fabric, and the monster's horned head swung around to face them. Its beady, violent black eyes fixed on Alistair and the soldier who had instinctively moved forward to protect the other two. It grunted, shifting its weight and straightening so they could see the dark rivulets of blood running down the heavily muscled chest. In one of its massive hands was the torn body of another Darkspawn and the ogre tossed it aside and gave its undivided attention to the new, living, targets.

"Back!!" The mage hollered at Alistair and the soldier. He swung his staff around, taking a stance and seemed to make the atmosphere itself surge. Suddenly the point of the staff erupted with a dark light and moments later a trail of small boulders smashed into the ogre's chest.

The monster stumbled back, going to one of its knees as the mage followed up with a shaft of fire. The others hurried forward and Ffion took over with the ranged attacks as the strain of those two consecutive spells became evident in the mage's face. She was rapidly firing off arrows. Two landed in the beasts shoulders and another sank into the neck. The ogre roared in annoyance and came back to its feet, swinging for anything that it could destroy. Alistair and the soldier danced back warily and Alistair darted around behind the ogre, striking here and there while trying to avoid the vicious kicks.

The ogre was having none of it. The massive horned head lowered and Alistair just barely dove out of the way. The monster was caught off guard and the soldier jumped in, sword swinging. As the ogre wheeled to face him, Alistair and Ffion took their chances as well. Ffion's bow was slung onto her back and both her short swords glinted maliciously as she jumped forward. Caught between three armed warriors that inflicted pain with razor sharp blades, the ogre roared in fury. Tilly was darting about its legs, sinking her teeth into its flesh when she could and as soon as the monster began weakening, the mage hollered for them to stand down. They did so instantly, the soldier staggering back as the ogre made one last ditch effort to win.

Another string of boulders smashed into the monster's chest and, as Alistair and the soldier darted forward to finish it off, Ffion ran for the hearth. The dry tinder of the beacon responded immediately to the flint and as the ogre's breath rattled to nothing behind her, she hurried to the windows to watch the last moments of battle. Prayers were scrolling through her mind as though on repeat and she felt rather than saw Alistair move in beside her.

Below them, things were not going well. It had clearly been much longer than their allotted hour and Cailan's carefully placed lines were failing. Ostagar was crowded with Darkspawn and to their dismayed surprise Cailan and Duncan were in the thick of things. They were holding their own, it seemed, and when the fire ignited at the top of the tower and the war horn sounded, Duncan and the king both glanced up at the beacon.

Ffion and Alistair's view of the battle was obstructed briefly by a curtain of smoke from the burning buildings down below and they were not in the correct line of vision to see Loghain's reaction to the horn and beacon. They missed the sharp words he shared with Serah Cauthrien, his right hand; missed her disbelieving look and reluctant wave for the troops to retreat, not advance; missed the general's last scathing glare towards what would soon become the destruction of Ostagar. Instead, their very next sighting of the king and senior Warden made their blood run cold and Alistair whisper a hoarse, No!

An ogre was hurtling itself at the pair, knocking Duncan out of the way before snatching up Cailan in one massive hand. The Warden scrambled back to his feet, obviously hurting, and rushed for the swords that had flown from his hands. The ogre held the king close to its face and the roar it gave seemed to tremble up the tower's stones. Time slowed as Duncan hefted a blade into his hand and hastened for the monster. With a second resounding roar, the ogre clasped Cailan firmly and squeezed. The king didn't even have time to scream. His once resplendent gold armor was crushed to nothing and as his body went limp, blood cascaded down over it. The ogre tossed the dead man aside and he dropped to the ground in a broken, crumpled heap.

Duncan hesitated for only a moment before he snatched up another sword and threw himself at the monster. He leaped and as the hands made to grab for him, he sank the blades hilt-deep into the broad chest. The Warden clung there for a moment, trying to keep his grip as the beast let out a bellow of pain and anger, tossing its head back. With a tremendous wrench, Duncan pulled one sword free and stabbed again, this time closer to the neck. The second sword followed and the ogre collapsed, sending the Warden rolling away from him. This time, Duncan didn't try to stand. Instead he crawled to Cailan's body, clearly in pain, and reached out with one hand to turn the king over. He looked down into the bloody face of the man he had come to think of as a friend and comrade, then let his eyes rove over the rest of the bodies scattered about.

Ostagar was clearly lost. Darkspawn were crawling over everything, cutting down the soldiers that retreated in waves towards the nonexistent protection of the ruin's walls. Tiredly, knowing this was likely to be the end of him; he looked up at the brightly burning beacon and could hardly muster the anger over Loghain's desertion. It had been quite clear the general did not agree with this assault and now he had made a very firm and, in essence, defensible stand.

Duncan saw the alpha Hurlock bearing down on him and didn't for an instant fool himself with the idea that he could reach another sword in time. Instead he perched there on his heels, waiting for his death; thanking the Maker that he wasn't going to have to face the Deep Roads, and his final prayer was that Alistair and Ffion would survive this. The boy was going to be Ferelden's last hope. The axe finally swung down and the senior Warden was gone.

"No!!" Alistair screamed.

Behind them, the door burst open and a swarm of Darkspawn was suddenly upon them. Their group held their own for a little while and then the soldier was cut down and something smashed into Ffion, sending her staggering to her knees. She felt the first arrows sink into her and, just before the other crash went against her skull, she heard Alistair shouting her name and Tilly whimpering and then the world went black.

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